21 December 2012

Review: Kentucky Fried Camp (Killer Joe)


In all of the folklore presented in cinema there have been many black hats. Evil men possessed by some spirit to cause harm to others, sometimes for money, sometimes for fun. One of the first black hats that comes immediately to mind is Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Stunt casting in the truest sense of the word, Fonda shocked audiences in how indiscriminately he mowed down innocents.

I mention Henry Fonda's casting in that film because it so similarly matches Matthew McConaughey as the titular Killer Joe. For years McConaughey was the charming young man who was a staple of romantic comedies, here, he possesses a terrifying formality. Joe is hired to kill people. The good looking man seen so many times before lulls you in right before the trap snaps shut on you. It's the beauty of his casting, the smile is still there, but it hides a vicious streak.

Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a career screw-up, his best prospects came in the form of cocaine that he was supposed to sell. The problem? His mother took them and sold them out from under him. That money was going to go a long way for Chris and now he's facing the possibility of being buried alive in electric tape by men he owes $6,000 to.

Chris can came up with the money, but he'll have to convince his father, the dull-witted Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his naive sister Dottie (Juno Temple) to hire Joe to take her out. She has a $50,000 policy and it does not take much prodding for them to all agree they'd be better off with her dead.

Whether the proceedings can be labeled a comedy of errors, or melodrama is entirely up to the viewer. For all of the blood and brutality of the film, an act performed on a piece of fried chicken should immediately clue the audience in on the joke (seriously, John Waters has it in his top ten). Watching buffoons try this hard to become rich is vaguely reminiscent of a slapstick film from the 1920s, only with far more swearing.

Matthew McConaughey is in the midst of a career renaissance right now with Lincoln Lawyer and Magic Mike, but Killer Joe is the film that chews up his rom-com resume and sets it ablaze. It's a risk for an actor who previously hadn't taken any and Tracy Letts and William Friedkin give him more than enough material to really hang himself.

Short of Sam Shepard's early plays, very few pieces of fiction have presented such a dire portrait of Middle America: punching women, murder-for-hire, drug dealing: all in a day's work. Joe requires a skewed sense of humor to get through, but if you can keep with it, it's worth it. Someone pass the bucket.

***/****