It's been a very long time since director William Friedkin made a movie that shocked audiences and took the culture by storm. The French Connection ushered in the era of gritty and realistic crime thrillers, and The Exorcist used supernatural horror to push boundaries of cinematic taste and decorum. But those now-classic movies belong to the 1970s. Fast-forward about four decades and you've got Killer Joe, Friedkin's natural follow-up to those brash odes to extremism. Where has the director been?
Friedkin has made more than a dozen movies since his '70s heyday, but nothing like this: Killer Joe is nasty, brutal and perverse, and it fully deserves the NC-17 rating that will likely scare off the many potential viewers who really don't want to see this film. It's also literate and hilarious, features two or three of the finest performances in ages and has visual style like nothing else this year.
Killer Joe won't enjoy the cultural impact of Friedkin's early successes, but that's only because times have changed, audiences have splintered and it's nearly impossible to shock those who find their way to movies like this. But its status as a cult classic is virtually assured, at least among those comfortable with a film willing to indulge in sadistic sexual assault via Kentucky Fried Chicken.
At the center of the mayhem is none other than Matthew McConaughey, who delivers the performance of his life in the movie's title role. (It will be interesting to see how the Academy feels about KFC, because McConaughey deserves an Oscar.) Joe is a Dallas County Sheriff and a hitman for hire who crosses paths with a family hell-bent on murdering one of its own for insurance money to cover a large and dangerous debt to drug dealers. As step-mom Sharla, Gina Gershon is almost as good as McConaughey and deserves much credit for accepting the least flattering screen role to come along in years. She's the embodiment of the term "trailer trash," which is exactly how Friedkin wants us to think of this entire murderous crew. The secret weapon here is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, who adapts his own play and provides the director with the sharpest dialogue with which he's ever had the privilege to work. Letts' words make the movie organic and spontaneous.
Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) plays the bumbling son who's willing to pimp out his 12-year-old sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer for Joe. Dottie and Joe's relationship takes Killer Joe into Blue Velvet territory, a depraved but almost poignant place from which the movie never returns. The wild card is the city of New Orleans, standing in for Dallas but somehow informing the mood and tone of the film. It's a New Orleans-made movie written by an Oklahoman who relishes summing up Texans as "hicks and rednecks with too much space to walk around in." Southern Gothic never had it so good. — KEN KORMAN