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‘Killer Joe' brings in the trash

Aug. 3, 2012 - 12:55PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 3, 2012 - 12:55PM  |  
Matthew McConaughey stars in 'Killer Joe.'
Matthew McConaughey stars in 'Killer Joe.' (Independent Pictures via the AP)
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"Killer Joe" is a trashy, seedy, vicious tale of double-crossing depravity perpetrated by a bunch of slimy, amoral, lowlife snakes.

And it stars Matthew McConaughey.

That seems like a serious contradiction, seeing as how McConaughey, 42, has spent most of the past decade as a self-styled bongo-thumping beach bum, content to waste himself in frivolous pap like "Two For the Money," "Failure to Launch" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

In fact, he hasn't done anything even remotely interesting since 2002, when he portrayed a crazed ex-Army dragon hunter opposite Christian Bale in the post-apocalyptic "Reign of Fire."

But McConaughey hurls a fascinatingly nasty curveball with this flick, which strikes a righteous blow for truth in movie advertising by fully living up to its billing as a "totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story."

Director William Friedkin (of "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection" fame) and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, who collaborated on the 2006 indie hit "Bug," reunite to squeeze every drop of ooze from a deceptively simple story.

The setup scenes introduce us to the Smiths, who live in a beat-up single-wide in a run-down trailer park near Dallas. They are young Chris (Emile Hirsch), his teen sister Dottie (Juno Temple), their dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and step-mom Sharla (Gina Gershon).

Chris, an oily little weasel with a gambling problem, is in a panic because some local legbreakers plan to ice him if he doesn't cough up the $6,000 he owes them.

Chris is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, so it speaks volumes about this family that he's the "smart" one. Ansel, a slow-witted garage mechanic who likes monster-truck rallies and Busch beer, not necessarily in that order, can't even find the park.

Sharla, meanwhile, brings new worlds of meaning to the word "slattern." When we first see her, she's greeting Chris at the door, naked from the waist down.

The slightly tetched Dottie, who has a minor case of Bieber Fever and a fondness for old kung fu flicks, is a classic virginal slut.

Chris's plan to stay alive is to kill his despised momma, Ansel's ex-wife, and collect on the life insurance payout that would go to Dottie. To do this, they go to Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas detective who moonlights as an assassin for hire.

A chill blows in when Joe shows up. He's pure rattler on two legs; even the crazed pit bull chained outside the trailer next door cringes in fear at his approach.

Joe is up for the job, but there's one hitch: The Smiths can't front his down payment. Ah, but they do have Dottie whom they'll happily hand over as a "retainer." Shoot, Ansel will even mosey over to the "thrifty" and buy Dottie a nice dress to help seal the deal.

And things swiftly commence to spiraling out of control in ways that can't even be vaguely described in a family newspaper.

Joe is the main catalyst; he slowly grows personally offended by the bottomless pit of stupidity that is the Smith clan and takes it upon himself to help propel the family toward its hellacious and richly deserved ruination.

From a slightly broader view, Friedkin may be doing something similar with his setting, the sprawling, long-horned, 10-gallon patch of weirdness that is Texas described by Chris in a fleetingly lucid moment as a place of "too many rednecks and hicks with too much space to walk around in."

Along the way, there's plenty of pitch-black humor. When Dottie asks Joe about his strangest cop case, he relates the wacky tale of a guy who decided to teach his two-timing girlfriend a lesson by dousing his genitals in lighter fluid and setting himself ablaze.

Joe pauses thoughtfully, then drawls: "Guess he showed her. Wonder if she ever got over it."

And you can almost hear Friedkin's throaty chuckle over a scene in which a car with a body inside is torched beneath the neon sign of a roadside choke 'n' puke called Billy's Mo BBQ.

Friedkin keeps it on simmer until the last 10 minutes, when he finally turns up the heat and lets it blow sky-high in a 10-minute climax that's the only true reason for the NC-17 rating.

It's a sweaty square dance in that cramped, crappy trailer featuring the most outrageously jaw-dropping misappropriation of a fried chicken leg imaginable.

The final warped grace note will have you groaning or guffawing, depending on how the ropes of your own proclivities are knotted.

Either way, you will not soon forget McConaughey's electric turn as "Killer Joe" or that poor, innocent chicken leg.

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