Movie audience laughs and cringes at “Killer Joe”

How much of humor is actually fear? When does one, like quantity and quality, turn into the other? Our matinee audience, nearly a full house, laughed all the way through “Killer Joe,” but it was nervous laughter. My movie buddy and I were laughing, too, but we were also squirming around in our seats. They aren’t kidding about the film’s NC-17 rating. This isn’t just a film with sex and violence. It’s almost all sex and violence, with everything else coincidental.

And yet, it’s extremely funny!

The plot is deceptively simple: Low-life Chris has a little bad luck with his drug-dealing business, so he goes to his nearly brain-dead father to conspire to murder his mother so that her insurance will fall to Chris’ little sister and they can split the money four ways: Chris, the sister, the father, and the father’s current wife. Then they hire the sadistic title character, a Dallas police detective with a sideline business, to carry out the deed.

Almost all the scenes occur within the closeness of the family’s trailer house. That’s because the movie is actually an adaptation of a successful 1991 play by Pulitzer and Tony winner Tracy Letts, who lived in Dallas when police corruption was so common that “official misconduct” was the only charge made against rapists in police uniform, and so many people were railroaded into jail that the Innocence Project now sets world records in Dallas.

With the exception of the macabre detective, the characters are quite sympathetic, and they have lessons we might need to know about. Most of them are workers, even though at the very low end of the wage scale. Almost anybody who has scrounged for work and lived in difficult circumstances (and who hasn’t nowadays?) can relate to these desperate and unhappy characters.

The portrayals in this movie are simply astounding. You have to wait for the credits at the end to reassure yourself that you actually know these performers from many, many other movies. It’s no big surprise that Matthew McConaghey can play a slimy clown; he did it very recently in another movie about backward Texans, “Bernie.” But sophisticated headliners Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, and Thomas Haden Church, ordinarily very recognizable, are buried within their weird trailer park personalities in this movie. The biggest and best surprise comes from Gina Gershon. We’ve seen her in a thousand effective roles as a gorgeous, rich, vamp. Would you think she could play a hellish harridan frequenter of the No-Tell Motel?

Get ready for happy surprises in this excellent, thoughtful, scary, trashy, funny movie!

“Killer Joe”
Directed by William Friedkin
NC-17, 103 minutes