Killer Joe isn't the first thing you see in William Friedkin's lip-smackingly repulsive film of the same name. After some gorgeous storm cinematography from master Caleb Deschanel ("The Natural"), what you see, full screen, is the crotch of Gina Gershon. Since she has presumably just been roused from sleep wearing only an itty-bitty T-shirt, the sight is clearly intended as an in-your-face joke by the 76-year-old director.
The movie ends with a joke in the dialogue, too.
I'd love to hear what Naomi Wolf - whose book "Vagina" is about to become one of the seasonal sensations between covers - would have to say about that.
Before "Killer Joe" is over, all unpleasant suspicions are confirmed when, in the final scene, Gershon is forced to perform close-up intimacies with a fried chicken leg that the avuncular Col. Sanders couldn't possibly have imagined. It's a cruel scene any way you look at it - protracted S&M semi-porn.
Don't bother asking why Gershon - a fine and brave actress - consented to it. This is an actor's movie, as are both the Friedkin movies based on off-Broadway plays by sometime actor Tracy Letts (the first was "Bug" starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon). There is, no doubt, a kind of performer's machisma for Gershon in being mistreated so badly in close-up.
You do have to consider differences in medium here. On stage, seen in a small theater, it would all happen in a deeply discomfiting middle distance. It would make you rethink degeneracy.
Presenting the scene in movie close-up is sick, slick exploitation by a director who has always been ready to put all of his considerable technical mastery to use in exploitative, in-your-face sensationalism.
Friedkin made one great movie, "The French Connection." And one pivotally memorable smash hit horror film, "The Exorcist." Everything else since has been "what's he doing with all that cinematic skill now?"
The answer in our new millennium is making blunt, in-your-face films of small plays by Letts, whose visceral impact on stages involves so many different expectations that the films can't help but alter both contexts and effects completely.
"Killer Joe" is what happens when a derivative actor/playwright invents a theatrical fantasy out of Sam Shepard and David Mamet and marries it to the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple."
I never thought I'd say this but compared to "Killer Joe," the frigid and vicious snottiness and superiority of the Coen boys is more human and sympathetic. The movie's last line is a nasty joke the audience takes out into the theater parking lot with a full understanding of just how they've been expected to perceive what they've seen.
Which is this: A young degenerate gambler (Emile Hirsch) needs more cash to keep mobsters from killing him. So he puts in motion a plan to kill his nasty, abusive (never seen) Mama. He involves his dim-witted father, her ex-husband (Thomas Haden Church), his slutty stepmother (Gershon) and his sister (Juno Temple), who'll be expected to offer her lovely virginal self to Killer Joe, a Dallas cop who has an apparently thriving murder-for-hire side business.
It's all, obviously, in the realm of trailer park grotesquerie.
And because author Letts is an actor, it's all an actor's show, full of the kind of stuff that actors - blessed rowdies that they so often are - like doing in public, no matter how vile.
The whole point of the film is Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe. Put together with his reptilian antics in "Magic Mike" and you'll have to say he's had a great year in movies that allow him to flourish in society's sub-basement.
Gershon's Linda Lovelace exertions involve a sort of virtuosity of their own (Amanda Plummer performed the role in New York) and both Church and Temple give this family of blood ultra-simples their humor.
Think of it, then, as a nasty, smug and very theatrical Coen movie. But without the, uhhhhh, humanity.
And that's the nastiest joke of all.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church
Director: William Friedkin
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: NC-17 for graphic aberrant content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.
The Lowdown: Degenerate hired killer meets his match in a money-grubbing degenerate family.