Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater is rightly celebrated for plays in which actors get in one another’s faces from the start and then keep hissing, driving, flaying — the kind of plays that, on the big screen, put the feeb in febrile, not because real human beings don’t act that way but because Actors Acting do. What a happy surprise that two of Steppenwolf playwright Tracey Letts’s early works — Bug and now Killer Joe, his breakthrough — have been turned into knockout films, both directed by William Friedkin, who’s more potent than ever at 76. In Killer Joe, Friedkin opens up the action without losing the pressure-cooker compression that makes Letts’s torpor torturous and his characters’ bad thoughts boil over into much worse acts. The violence, when it comes, is nonsensically garish — and makes perfect sense.
It’s a family drama, of course, and gets right to the point with a young man planning matricide. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a high-strung ne’er-do-well with incestuous dreams about his tremulous, 20-year-old virgin sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), and a whopping debt to gangsters who’ll shortly kill him for sure. When he learns that his estranged mother, by all accounts a hateful drunk, has a fat insurance policy naming Dottie the sole beneficiary, he wastes no time in bringing his scheme to his groggy-loser of a dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) — who’s more than okay with the idea of murder, as is Ansel’s sneering slattern of a wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and, finally, Dottie, the ingénue. What they need is a professional hit man — and he arrives in the form of Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a bent Dallas police detective in a black cowboy hat.
McConaughey cemented his stardom as a rom-com hunk, a Most Beautiful person, but have you ever noticed how bizarre his features are — his long nose and shark eyes and face that’s all Picasso-flat planes? I’m still not sure if he’s a great or even a very good actor, but his slowish timing is stubbornly his own, and from his deliberate phrasing — one word at a time — it’s instantly apparent that the killer Joe is out of his mind. Precisely what form his madness will take is a mystery, though, especially when he gets all courtly around young Dottie, who asks him if he has ever fired a gun and he says, nodding gently and sadly, as if to a small child, without ever taking his eyes off her, “Yes.” When Chris can’t pay Joe’s 25-grand fee up front, he says he’ll kill Chris’s mother for a “retainer” — Dottie. Before long, Joe has become the family’s son-in-law, de facto patriarch, and ruler.
Other writers circle in on unpleasant truths for fear of arriving at their destinations too early, but in Letts’s world, there’s no finish line: He makes a left off the Harold Pinter rotary, a hard right at Sam Shepard–ville, and barrels straight into the swamp. Killer Joe would be tiresomely reductive if it weren’t so urgent. On-screen, the characters move from the Smith family home (one small step above a trailer) to a strip club to a ruined pool hall to a shuttered amusement park and back home, but it’s all the same impacted psychological space. Such juicy psychoses, such savory parts. Hirsch gives the play its desperate center, Haden Church its slow-witted moral void, Gershon its noirish female cunning, McConaughey its whiplash brutality — and Temple, so frail, so damaged in such nonspecific ways, its wild card. Letts and Friedkin make no attempt to soften the characters’ monstrousness, and thank hell for that. This is rave and rage and purge acting.
Most of the violence is saved for the last scene, and it’s a Grand Guignol opera — way over the top. But as splashy as Killer Joe is, it’s also, beat by beat, meticulously orchestrated, with no shortcuts to the carnage. When it comes to mapping psychoses, Letts and Friedkin are diabolically single-minded cartographers.