The sight of a bloody, bashed-up Gina Gershon on her knees being forced to fellate a KFC drumstick protruding from Matthew McConaughey’s crotch will likely be one of the more indelible cinematic images of 2012. It certainly made enough of an impression on the MPAA to condemn Killer Joe, William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ pitch black play, with a dreaded NC-17 rating. And so, with the transformative and awe-inspiring Showgirls far behind her (but certainly not forgotten), Gershon joins Antonio Banderas (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Law of Desire) and Helen Mirren (Caligula; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover) in the grand and under-populated pantheon of brave legends who went skinny-dipping in NC-17/X-rated waters, not once, but twice. Even though we see her beaver before her face, she’s made a smart career choice this time around. In the immortal words of Nomi Malone, “It doesn’t suck.”

Set in a Texas trailer park, this nasty little comic thriller follows Chris (Emile Hirsch), a young dealer who hatches a plan to hire a hit man to kill his mother for her life insurance policy in order to pay back the $6,000 he owes his unforgiving drug lord. Aided by his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), they make an arrangement with Killer Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a corrupt cop who moonlights as an assassin. Joe demands $25,000 cash in advance, but he’s willing to settle for the companionship and submission of Chris’s slow, virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer. Meanwhile, Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gershon) attempts to manipulate the boys with her own secret maneuvers.

Letts’ 1998 off-Broadway debut (a decade before he would win the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County) invited generous comparisons to Sam Shepard and the Coen Brothers. His unabashed display of full-frontal nudity, shocking sexual and non-sexual violence, and the screaming desperation of five ludicrously amoral characters provided an edgy respite from the safe fare offered up on the Great White Way (Art and The Lion King were the Tony Winners that year). But underneath that gruesome and thrilling spectacle, something was missing for this critic. Senseless violence combined with irony can only feed an audience’s attention for so long before you begin to crave meaning, or at least a wise perspective making sense of all the madness. Letts is a terrific playwright, but this isn’t his best play.

With Letts’ screenplay, Friedkin hasn’t entirely filled in that gap with his second foray into Lettsville (he also directed Bug in 2006), but he has served up a faithful and visceral adaptation of a play that presents many challenges for the screen. Approaching 77, Friedkin has never been afraid of pissing off his audience with controversial content (Cruising), horrifying spectacles (The Exorcist) or claustrophobic chatty plays that most directors would consider unfilmable (The Boys in the Band). With Killer Joe, he embraces all of these challenges and then some. There’s not a single likeable character onscreen to root for, but who cares? Friedkin has earned our trust and I’ll follow him to any bloodbath he wants to take me to, anytime.


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The journey ends up being far more enjoyable than other tales of greed and desperation, in which simpletons transform into cold-blooded accomplices for cash and glory (Lawrence Kasdan’s painfully unfunny I Love You to Death, Michael Ritchie’s dull and witless Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, for instance). But we’ve also seen several highly satisfying and potent morality tales that cover similar ground with a bit more meat (Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, and the Coens’ Fargo, to name a few). Joe hovers between the former and the latter.

As Joe’s dim, innocent bait-turned-bride, Temple skillfully registers equal amounts of trauma and hope, as the physical and psychological carnage mounts around her. She’s a young Renée Zellweger without the puffy, chemical-peeled, filler-enhanced, expressionless face. But it’s McConaughey’s charismatic, arrogant, smooth son-of-a-bitch that will haunt you after you exit the theater. This is one carefully crafted and creepy performance, and it’s likely to earn him his first Oscar nomination.

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