‘Killer Joe’: No Mama’s boy

July 25, 2012

He won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for “August: Osage County,” a tale of family dysfunction that was scathing and dark. But that wasn’t playwright Tracy Letts’ first foray into the brutal dynamics of family strife: Consider his play, now a film, called “Killer Joe.”

Dysfunctional? The Smith clan barely functions at all – and the dumbest of the bunch appears to be Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-time drug dealer who has lost his stash but still owes $6,000 – more money than he has or, perhaps, than he’ll ever have – to a local gangster in his small town. His life is on the line and no one in his immediate family has the cash to help him out.

His father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), is broke, still trying to impress (and support) his new wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Chris has a dim but sexy sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), who is no help either.

Ansel, however, does have an idea: His ex-wife, Chris’ mother – a woman about whom no one seems to have a kind word to say – has a life-insurance policy worth a healthy sum – enough to settle Chris’ debt. And, Chris assumes, he would be the beneficiary if she came to an untimely demise. Even more to the point, Ansel knows a guy, as Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who will, for a fee, dispose of unwanted people. You do the numbers.

Chris, however, obviously flunked arithmetic, because he can’t quite figure out how to pay Joe upfront and still extricate himself from his current problems. By the end of the story, Joe will exact his pound of flesh for a job completed, though not necessarily the job he’s been paid to do.

Letts’ writing is stark and witty, bringing together people who have a low tolerance for each other but who need each other nonetheless. He’s particularly good at turning obvious stupidity into comedic capital. And he’s fortunate enough to have a cast that knows what to do with a line that’s both snakey and funny.

It’s hard to imagine a director better suited to Letts’ brisk, awfully funny and wittily awful characters than William Friedkin. Friedkin, who also brought Letts’ claustrophobic, mind-bending tale, “Bug,” to the screen, unleashes a strong cast on this tale of weak-minded people who think they’re smarter than they are.

Friedkin had the good sense to cast McConaughey as the title character. As he did earlier this summer in “Magic Mike,” McConaughey uses his leading-man beauty for nastier purposes. That smile, so winning, can kill with its chilliness. When he turns his charms on the nubile Temple, the seduction is masterful, less about turning this young girl to his will than about amusing himself while honing his technique.

The finale is bruisingly bloody, as rough a moment as any I’ve seen since Casey Affleck pummeled Jessica Alba in “The Killer Inside Me.” Friedkin doesn’t pull any punches, no pun intended, in a scene that is horrifyingly specific without ever losing its drama.

Do all the pieces of “Killer Joe” fit together? Could the story have shed some extraneous moments (that probably weren’t part of the original play)? No doubt. But in a summer of movies made of bombastic special effects and obvious action, “Killer Joe” still has the ability to surprise by keeping it down and dirty – though you’ll need a strong stomach to make it to the end.

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