Sunday, August 5, 2012

Killer Joe

You won’t soon forget “Killer Joe.” It’s a loaded gun of a movie that fires itself straight into the collective American conscious, with a final scene as iconic and indelible as Glenn Close resurrecting from a bathtub in “Fatal Attraction” or Javier Bardem asking a store clerk to call a coin flip for his life in “No Country for Old Men.” In August 2012 in America, either you’ve seen “Killer Joe” or you haven’t, and if you have, you’re talking about it.

Like Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece “Inglourious Basterds,” William Friedkin’s picture – the director’s best since 1985’s all-time great “To Live and Die in L.A.” – is constructed primarily as a series of elaborate set pieces, each of which lasts approximately 20 to 30 minutes. By the end of the first, I knew I was on “Killer Joe’s” wavelength. This establishing sequence introduces Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-time Texas coke dealer who’s into some bad men for 6 G’s and whose mom, with whom he’s been living, just found and stole all his blow.

His cute little ass on the line, Chris hightails it to the trailer park where his laconic, resigned, dim-bulb dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and hard-to-peg, va-va-voom stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) maintain custody of his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie’s ethereal and otherworldly and not quite right in the head – she sees everything, including visions – but understands more than you might think. Chris gets nowhere with Ansel – “I’ve never had a thousand dollars in my whole life,” he tells his son – and, desperate for quick cash, hits on a murder-for-hire plot aimed at the $50,000 insurance policy on his mom’s life.

One of the first signs “Killer Joe” isn’t like other movies is how quickly Ansel and Sharla agree to the plan and turn their attention to divvying up the booty. They intend to keep it from Dottie, but needn’t bother. “I heard you talking about killing Mama,” she walks out of her room and intones. “I think it’s a good idea.” With that, they make the call to “Killer” Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who “does a little business on the side.”

Killer Joe – Tracy Letts adapted the script from his own stage play – is one of the great characters in recent film, a man of menace both overt and understated, who in his tight blue shirt, black hat and leather cop paraphernalia insists on gentlemanly conduct and language even while executing acts of inhuman brutality. As Joe, Matthew McConaughey gives the defining performance of his career, the one for which, even more than “A Time to Kill,” he will be remembered by movie lovers. Everything that was campy about his tanaholic impresario Dallas in “Magic Mike” becomes mythic and iconic here.

Letts’ screenplay surely deserves the Academy Award. At times it’s almost painfully witty. Even the insults exchanged among Chris, Ansel, Sharla and Joe – tossed off not with malice but matter-of-factly -- had me sitting up in bed at night laughing. Hirsch – who’s yet to realize the potential of his star-making turn in 2007’s beautiful “Into the Wild” – makes a highly likable lead, occasionally bug-eyed at what’s happening around him. Gina Gershon and especially Thomas Haden Church must get Oscar nominations.

I haven’t had this much fun at the movies all year. “Killer Joe” is the kind of picture where you walk out of the theater and want to walk right back in and see it again. Alive with the thrilling sensation of the fresh and new, it’s the first movie of 2012 that people will still be talking about a decade later.

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