This indie film playing now at the River Oaks Theater in Houston is gaining more attention for the NC-17 rating it earned rather than the movie itself. Yes, there are a couple of scenes that are ultra violent, but honestly, I’ve seen worse on cable television.The movie, a dark twisted take on an extortion scheme gone wrong, is taken from a 1991 Tracy Letts play. Mr. Letts also wrote this screenplay with William Friedkin, better known for films he made in the ’70s — “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” — directing. If the author seems familiar, it’s probably because he also wrote “August: Osage County,” the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play. The movie version starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts is in the works now with a premiere set for later this year, and it surely will not suffer the same rating anathema.
“August: Osage County” employs themes of shocking and extreme family dysfunction mixed with some wicked black humor. Some of the most pivotal moments of that play take place around the kitchen table. Now after seeing “Killer Joe,” it obvious these are themes that are as comfortable to the author as a plate of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. While fried chicken might not be everyone’s idea of comfort food, it is part of the reason this movie earned the harsh rating, in particular a scene involving a chicken leg. But that’s all you’ll get from me.
Actually filmed in New Orleans, subbing for a backwoods suburb near Dallas, the opening scene, set in a trailer park on a rainy night, foreshadows trouble ahead. The frantic knock on the door is Chris (Emile Hirsch), the son of Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). Angel lives with his second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), who is not quite right.Chris, a drug dealer, is in to his supplier for a lot of money, and he’s come to share his plan to hire a contract killer to dispose of his and Dottie’s awful mother so they can get their hands on her $50,000 insurance policy. The problem is they don’t have the up-front money Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) requires to do the job. Instead the hit man, a Dallas cop by day, suggests a retainer, namely Dottie, until the policy is cashed in and he gets his cut.
There is the usual back-stabbing, double-dealing treachery that a large sum of money invites, some of it is pretty clever and fun to watch play out in what is being dubbed a “Southern Gothic” satire. And because Letts writes great characters, especially those of Joe and Dottie, this will hold your interest.
The ubiquitous McConaughey has already appeared in two movies this summer with two more on the way by the end of the year. In “Bernie” (out on DVD this week), he played a slick district attorney of a small East Texas town. In “Magic Mike,” he played an oily male strip club owner. Both of these characters were glib and charismatic and somewhat likeable, which makes Joe Cooper such a revelation. McConaughey, normally an actor who likes to be liked, trades all of that for the sinister Joe. This guy is malevolence personified, with his soft, deliberate manner of speech that punctuates the menace he’s about to unleash. He’s as amoral as a pit viper, and a lot deadlier when crossed.
In this dark tale, he is the darkest, most unpredictable and vicious element. The rest of Letts’ players are merely amateurs compared to Joe, and when he gains the upper hand late in the movie, it gets very ugly, very fast in a scene that will have you laughing and then gasping in horror.
“Killer Joe” will probably go to DVD shortly. NC-17 movies rarely do well in theaters and Letts — and Friedkin — can do better. But for a hot Saturday afternoon, it was “Killer” entertainment.