Roughed up

Stage play’s sex and violence amplified on way to big screen

Hey, Killer Joe.

Hey, Killer Joe.

Killer Joe
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple and Thomas Haden Church. Directed by William Friedkin. Paradise Cinema 7. Rated NC-17.
Rated 3.0

Killer Joe (rated NC-17) is based on an early play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts; it’s directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist); it has a spooky/suave Matthew McConaughey finessing the title role; and its piquant supporting cast features Gina Gershon, Juno Temple, Emile Hirsch, and Thomas Haden Church.

All of that may sound rather intriguing, if not downright irresistible, but there’s more that you may want to know before you lay out the price of a ticket.

First of all, while Letts is credited with the screenplay adaptation, the basic script loses far more than it gains from the transformation into movie terms. What might have seemed daring, intense drama onstage becomes sleazy sensationalism when “opened up” into a feature-length action drama in a hardscrabble Texas setting.

Second, McConaughey’s performance is the film’s lone distinctively impressive element, even though (and maybe partly because) his Killer Joe is the most spectacularly evil figure in Letts’ little menagerie of morally defective dunderheads. But questionable decisions of casting and direction leave the other featured players in a rather distasteful limbo.

Third, it not only earns that NC-17 rating, it fairly wallows in it. Graphic violence, brutal sex scenes and cruel perversity are part of Letts’ script (adapted from his first play), and Friedkin’s lurid mise en scène renders them as generic in-your-face horror-movie shock effects. What might have been “disturbing drama” onstage becomes outright punishment for audience and actors alike on the big screen.

For the record, the basic story is a very dark comedy. The central plot premise has a hardscrabble nitwit (Hirsch) and various dim-bulb family members (his sister, his father, his stepmother) scheming to have the kids’ despised mother murdered for her insurance money. The guy they hire to do the job is “Killer Joe” Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who has a lucrative sideline as a contract killer.

At the outset, it plays as a sort of redneck noir, but once the characters’ various inclinations toward moral depravity take hold, the proceedings descend into something more gothic than noir. Cowboy-hatted and dressed in black, Joe Cooper is the diabolical flip-side of the mythical Lone Star gunfighter, the devil come to frolic among drawling low-life miscreants. McConaughey nails it.

Hirsch scrambles incessantly as a character whose glints of intelligence only get him deeper into trouble. Church plods along, aptly, as the family’s clueless patriarch. Gershon is feisty and kinky as the cheerfully corrupt stepmother, but only up to the point where Friedkin’s camera bores in for close-up views of the grotesque abuses to which her character is subjected. Temple seems at a loss with the Lolita/Baby Doll role of the younger sister.