** (out of four)
If “Killer Joe” is about anything—and it barely is—it’s about how a bunch of amoral fools ignore the wishes of the only pure person among them.
The NC-17-rated movie’s own crime is being more interested in the sins of the guilty than their effect on the innocent. Adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicagoan Tracy Letts from his play, “Killer Joe” stars Emile Hirsch as Chris, a low-life constantly catching up to his own mistakes. He’ll be killed if he can’t pay off a $6,000 debt soon, so he has an idea: Hiring Dallas detective/murderer-for-hire Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to take care of the mom who just threw Chris out of her house. That leaves Chris, his sister Dottie (Juno Temple), their dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon) to collect on a $50,000 insurance policy. Once Joe receives $25,000 for his services. This is not a man you want to risk disappointing.
Following what could be an Oscar-nominated turn (really) in “Magic Mike,” McConaughey chills in “Killer Joe,” allowing the character’s perpetual aura of menace to bubble so close to the surface that it can bubble over without Joe even needing to raise his voice. As Dottie, a virgin whom Joe considers a retainer for his work since Chris can’t pay up front, Temple (“The Dark Knight Rises”) delivers a young woman caught up in a situation that’s about 10,000 times heftier than anything she’s experienced before.
Yet Letts and director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”), constructing a story that sometimes recalls “Double Indemnity” or just drunk Hitchcock, indulge the sleaze without much concern for the unconvincingly self-aware people or their relationships. Chris’ guilt comes out of nowhere; the crucial dynamic between Joe and Dottie occurs almost entirely off-screen and fails to register as an unlikely bond or a girl who doesn’t realize she’s being taken advantage of by a guy who might not take no for an answer in the first place.
So unlike complex trash such as “Black Snake Moan” or enjoyable filth like “Wild Things,” the tense, often-funny “Killer Joe” features horrifying behavior for shock value alone. That it also makes us laugh may be more revealing than the movie itself.
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