Any movie that begins with a visual panorama of flashing lighting, pouring rain and a rundown trailer park, set to the aural backdrop of a snarling junkyard dog and the expletive punctuated door pounding of somebody seeking dubious shelter, begs the question: Do we really want to go there? And when the door is finally opened, and all we, and the guy knocking, see is bushy feminine genitalia, we know the obvious answer, but somehow, we stay, lured, like voyeurs, as witnesses to a train wreck.
The sopping-wet shelter seeker is Chris (Emile Hirsch), in hock to the tune of $6,000 to local drug dealers and desperate to enlist dad Ansel’s (Thomas Hayden Church) help in his survival. Seems there’s a Dallas detective, one Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who moonlights as a hit man; for a cool $25,000, Joe will murder Ansel’s ex, who, according to Chris, has a $50,000 life insurance policy made out to Dottie (Juno Temple), the virginal, possibly half-wit baby of the family. It doesn’t take much convincing for the entire family, including Ansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), to endorse the plan.
Morals or fear of getting caught simply don’t enter the equation. Indeed, why should they when somebody as cocksure (um, in more ways than one) as Joe is in charge. Trouble comes early, and then often, as Joe, in lieu of a monetary down payment, takes Dottie as collateral; slowly, he moves in on the family and takes over as its quasi-spiritual head. That’s not saying much, as the family is so bereft of anything liberals might sarcastically refer to as family values, such that they can calmly make their way through a chicken dinner while one of them has their head busted in and is gushing blood.
Director William Friedkin—yes, he’s still alive—seems to enjoy being in charge and delivering his trademark in-your-face (with a KFC drumstick, no less) chutzpah. One is reminded of the spine tingling horror of, say, The Exorcist (a movie I still can’t watch in its entirety), but also, how that earlier film had a degree of restraint nowhere evident in Killer Joe—except, that is, in McConaughey’s masterful performance. McConaughey drips alpha male sexuality tinged with explosive danger, dipped in a bath of lethal venom. His deflowering of Dottie, for instance, is shocking and yet mesmerizing, as he “plays” her in such a way as to bring out her own obvious lust. Too often, however, Friedkin enjoys shocking for the sake of doing so, completely losing his tempo halfway through before jumping the rails with a horrifically violent climax in which it seems that the director wants to sensationalize the impact of how low people will go when under the sway of a much more powerful and diabolical force.