‘Killer Joe’ is unnerving, and not just because of the fried chicken

McConaughey and Gershon. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Killer Joe, based on a play about a corrupt cop in Texas trailer-park country, is a remarkable, and disgusting, movie adaptation.

Directed by the 77 year-old William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), Killer Joe never once feels stagey. Friedkin does a fantastic job of keeping the story's pacing tight, and the narrative's focus on how the characters are products of their scuzzy environment. Playwright Tracy Letts adapted the film's screenplay from his own play, but Killer Joe belongs to Friedkin, who has always done a great job of representing the apathy and corruption inherent in all of his films' seedy settings.

Joe, the titular antihero (played by a winningly vicious Matthew McConnaughey), can't really be called a villain, if only because of how sleazy everyone else around him is, too. In the scene in which we first meet him, he puts on his hat, straightens his belt and dons his mirror sunglasses in a series of hyper-cropped close-ups. Instead of being an unassailable paragon of virtue, this man is represented as a schizoid paragon of sleaze: He's literally shown to be a man of unequal parts. Friedkin makes a point of not showing us Joe's face during this introductory sequence.

Joe is the community's deranged knight in tarnished armor. He's hired by Chris Smith (Emile Smith), a young, bumbling schemer, to kill Chris's mother. Everyone who knows what's going on, from the relatively innocent Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris's sister, to Ansel (the characteristically excellent Thomas Haden Church), an alcoholic divorcee and Chris's redneck dad, is OK with Chris's plan to collect on his mom's life insurance policy.

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All the characters in Killer Joe are desperate and a little deluded, but Chris is the worst off: He's a dupe, so needy that he doesn't even see what's fundamentally wrong with his plan to collect on his mother's life insurance. Chris and Ansel have to scramble just to come up with the money to pay Joe to carry out their ill-conceived scheme.

But alhough Joe talks down to everyone in a measured, condescending drawl, he is just as disturbed as Chris and all of the other Smiths are. At one point, Joe tells a shaggy-dog of a story about the a river that bordered his childhood home. He can't quite put his finger on it but there's something seriously unnerving to him about the fact that the Oklahomans on the other side eventually were able to claim the river. It's a little like losing your front porch, he explains. By the time Joe finishes telling this story, it's apparent he's more lost than when he began.

Joe and the people around him lack perspective, almost completely. The film's characters have sublimated everything to the point where they can't discern their own motives, let alone the motives of the people around them. Ansel says at one point, "I'm never aware," a line that could have been spoken by any one of the film's main characters. Within the film's first 20 minutes, viewers see full frontal nudity from both Temple and Sharla Smith (Gina Gershon), Ansel's white-trash wife. According to Sharla, neither she nor Dottie ever thought to cover up. In the hyper-violent, amoral context of Joe's world, that perverse explanation makes perfect sense.

The violence in Killer Joe is gleefully twisted. A scene in which Chris is reminded of why he needs to collect on his own mother's life insurance policy is fittingly jarring. It's a severe beatdown, scored with "Strokin'," Clarence Carter's paean to the joys of onanism. The scene is spectacularly brutal, but not, technically, gratuitous: It, like the beating itself, is meant to convey just how serious to consequences of Chris' actions are going to be. Chris, like Joe, willfully forgets anything he can't immediately control. He needs a lesson that will be unforgettable.

Killer Joe could only properly end with a spectacle as ugly as the already-infamous fried chicken scene. By this point in the film, Joe has allowed himself to become so involved with the Smiths' problems that even he inevitably loses his cool in a big and disgusting way.

Friedkin doesn't compromise or skimp in any way when it comes to embellishing Letts' story with his instantly recognizable sense of black humor. He knew exactly how hard he wanted to push the envelope with his latest film, and he got a result that is expertly unnerving.