In this era of media over­stim­u­la­tion, it’s a mir­a­cle when a movie with­out any kind of spe­cial effects or unique sto­ry hook can make you sit up and pay atten­tion.  Audiences today are used to mon­u­men­tal help­ings of style and bom­bast so it takes some­thing real­ly pri­mal and pow­er­ful to cut through that clat­ter.  It doesn’t help that the issue is also con­fused by a mul­ti­plex-aid­ed-and-abet­ted cin­e­ma of psue­do-shocks (the Saw series, Rob Zombie’s films, etc.) that have all the brawn but none of the brains.

Thankfully, there are still movies being made that aren’t afraid to go after the audi­ence where they live — and they can actu­al­ly get the job done because they know how to strike with the finesse of a scalpel-tot­ing sur­geon.  Killer Joe is the most recent exam­ple of this kind of movie.  Don’t let the small cast of char­ac­ters or the crime flick premise fool you: the peo­ple who made Killer Joe know how to get to the view­er in ways that don’t require a gal­lon of stage blood or a mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar bud­get.

Tracy Letts adapt­ed his own 1991 play for this film and the result plays like a mix­ture of Jim Thompson noir plot­ting and Tennessee Williams-style Southern goth­ic melo­dra­ma, with a dash of John Waters shock pow­er thrown in.  Its cat­a­lyst is Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-timer who finds him­self the wrong side of a local crime boss when his mom steals some cocaine he was sup­posed to sell.  His solu­tion is to put a hit on his mom since the ben­e­fi­cia­ry of her life insur­ance pol­i­cy is Dottie (Juno Temple), his child­like, emo­tion­al­ly dam­aged lit­tle sis­ter.  He gets the plan rolling by con­ning his dimwit­ted divorcee dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) in help­ing him secure the ser­vices of Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a crooked Dallas cop who moon­lights as a hired killer.

They run into prob­lems when they can’t pay for his ser­vices up front — but Joe offers them a coun­ter-propo­si­tion: if they allow him to reg­u­lar­ly bed Dottie as a “retain­er,” he’ll com­mit the killing and sit tight until they can col­lect the insur­ance mon­ey.  Everyone except Chris is fine with this, includ­ing Ansel’s new sex­pot wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), but no crime noir mur­der plot ever goes smooth­ly.  There will be com­pli­ca­tions, may­be a dou­ble-cross or two and all of the­se errors will incur the wrath of Joe, who hides a ter­ri­fy­ing propen­si­ty for cru­el vio­lence behind his hon­eyed drawl.

A lot of crit­ics have been quick to dis­miss Killer Joe as a style exer­cise in lurid pulp but such short­sight­ed dis­missals do a great injus­tice to the amaz­ing film­mak­ing on dis­play here.  It all starts with Letts’ fan­tas­tic script: he takes the kind of mate­ri­al that could have been tooth­less or com­mon­place in oth­er hands and makes it fresh through pure fear­less­ness.  He also deserves praise for his skill with dia­logue, which hits the right blend of styl­iza­tion and south­ern work­ing-class authen­tic­i­ty, and the unflinch­ing way he fol­lows his char­ac­ters’ bad behav­iors to their ulti­mate end.

An impor­tant thing to note is that as over the top as the sto­ry gets, it is also fuelled by a keen under­stand­ing of human nature. Virtually all the char­ac­ters end up doing things that are dumb or ter­ri­ble — yet we also are allowed to see moments where the same char­ac­ters are kind or vul­ner­a­ble in ways that keep them from devolv­ing into car­i­ca­tures.  The sophis­ti­ca­tion of the­se charac­ter­i­za­tions ensure that the audi­ence remains involved in their fates when the going gets grim.  What they do as the sto­ry pro­gress­es often goes beyond the pale but it always rings true: even its most bru­tal or car­nal moments, Killer Joe uses such behav­ior to reveal addi­tion­al sides of each char­ac­ter (after all, action is char­ac­ter, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the cir­cum­stances inform­ing the action are dire).

Speaking of char­ac­ters, the act­ing in Killer Joe is noth­ing short of phe­nom­e­nal, with every­one bring­ing their A-game.    Hirsch does excel­lent work in a char­ac­ter role, key­ing in instinc­tive­ly to the piece’s pitch-black sense of humor (his Wile E. Coyote-style facial reac­tions when things go hor­ri­bly wrong are price­less).  Juno Temple in par­tic­u­lar is a major find, play­ing her “baby doll” char­ac­ter­i­za­tion in an under­stat­ed yet intense way, invest­ing her­self in the role in a way that makes her char­ac­ter both sym­pa­thet­ic and a bit scary. Church might do the sub­tlest work, play­ing his character’s “dim bulb” notes with wit­ty sub­tle­ty but even­tu­al­ly reveal­ing addi­tion­al lev­els to his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion dur­ing the finale that trans­form it from comedic device to trag­ic per­sona.

That said, there are two per­for­mances that will per­ma­nent­ly burn them­selves into your cin­e­mat­ic mem­o­ry.  Gershon has got­ten a lot of notice for the brav­ery of her work and indeed does fear­less work, bar­ing her­self both phys­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly in a cou­ple of sce­nes that would make most Hollywood lead­ing ladies run away scream­ing.  She shares one of those sce­nes at the end with McConaughey, whose work here will make you instant­ly for­give all those awful chick-flicks he spent a decade wast­ing time in.  He gives a per­for­mance of coiled inten­si­ty here, first purring his lines with a qui­et machis­mo and slow­ly adding lay­ers of men­tal insta­bil­i­ty that result in an out­pour­ing of scald­ing bru­tal­i­ty.  His mani­ac is the real deal, the kind of mad­man who is dou­bly effec­tive because he hides his inner hor­ror well enough to sneak up on you.

Finally, Killer Joe is beau­ti­ful­ly orches­trat­ed by William Friedkin.  He pre­vi­ous­ly teamed with Letts for the excel­lent Bug a few years back and he taps right into the propul­sive, snow­balling rhythms of Letts’ work here.  The script is full of tricky nar­ra­tive shifts, bounc­ing from low com­e­dy to shocks to qui­et­ly sear­ing dra­ma, but Friedkin mod­u­lates the piece beau­ti­ful­ly and nev­er miss­es a step.  New direc­tors could learn a lot from how he off­sets snap­pi­ly-paced dia­logue exchanges with mood­ier, more lan­guid sce­nes like the moment where Joe patient­ly seduces a skit­tish, chat­ty Dottie.    Best of all, when the script’s finale calls for a full throt­tle approach, Friedkin nev­er hes­i­tates and push­es his actors up to the edge to get the right stom­ach-churn­ing effect.

On the lat­ter note, there’s been a lot of hem­ming and haw­ing from the dai­ly-review brigade about the oper­at­ic bru­tal­i­ty of the film’s last twen­ty min­utes but the end­ing is actu­al­ly pitched per­fect­ly: Killer Joe is about des­per­ate peo­ple toy­ing with forces beyond their com­pre­hen­sion so when they have to deal with the con­se­quences, it’s only appro­pri­ate that the pay­back should be bru­tal enough to shat­ter their sens­es — and those of the audi­ence.

Simply put, you’ll walk away from Killer Joe feel­ing jolt­ed.  Some will find the expe­ri­ence brac­ing and some will find it repel­lent but you can rest assured that all com­ers will walk away feel­ing some­thing.  That’s rea­son enough for dar­ing cineast­es to praise Killer Joe to the heav­ens.