The Smith clan of Texas may pass many things from generation to generation, but brains are not among them. The current dimmest-bulb end product is Chris (Emile Hirsch), a yelping young fool whose solution to his temporary homelessness and a bungled drug deal is murdering the mother who just threw him out to collect her life insurance money. This scheme doesn't particularly bother his pa, equally slow Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), or the latter's somewhat sharper albeit slutty second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). But none are capable or courageous enough to pull off such a stunt themselves, so an outside party is enlisted in the form of Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a corrupt police detective slash hit man for hire.
"Killer" Joe enters the Smith family mobile home like he owns it, cutting through their fumbling promises and excuses with bored, bullying impatience. When it becomes clear these yokels can't possibly come up with his required $25,000 deposit, he announces he'll accept as retainer the temporary possession of Dottie (Juno Temple) — Chris' younger sister, an untouched innocent so wide-eyed she almost seems mentally deficient — with aforementioned to be forfeited entirely should they fail to come through.
Needless to say, almost nothing goes as planned, escalating mayhem to new heights of trailer-trash Grand Guignol. Things get fugly to the point where Killer Joe becomes one of those movies whose various abuses (physical and otherwise) are shocking enough to court charges of gratuitous violence and misogyny. Unlike the 2010 Killer Inside Me, for instance, it can't really be justified as a commentary upon those very entertainment staples; Letts is highly skilled, but those looking for a message here will have to think one up for themselves.
Still, Friedkin and his cast do such good work that Killer Joe's grimly humorous satisfaction in its worst possible scenarios seems quite enough. He's never been a moralizing director; The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer remain great in part because they stare into spectacular voids with clinical, nonjudgmental fascination.
This latest is a more artificially contrived piece, but it still hits Friedkin's sweet spot, with his actors more than rising to the occasion. In particular, McConaughey brings a snake's cold-blooded sinuousness to the role of the most lethal weapon here. Coming on the heels of Bernie and Magic Mike, two movies in which he made deft fun of his own narcissism, this turn makes it a very good year for him — although Killer Joe is sure to be a little too much for awards notice, just as it is for MPAA tolerance.
KILLER JOE opens Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters.