If a film like 2011's sexually explicit British drama Shame taught us anything, it's that being slapped with a dreaded NC-17 rating these days doesn't always ensure a death sentence. Sure, its box-office numbers will be affected by those close-minded theater chains refusing to screen movies considered too provocative because of the MPAA label, but as the critically-acclaimed Shame proved, sometimes the content of a film is so essential to the story, it doesn't matter how uncomfortable it might be for some viewers. "I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter," Fox Searchlight Pictures' President Steve Gilula said last year about the film. "We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner."
The same can be said for the dark comedy thriller Killer Joe, but with a more tongue-in-cheek approach. Supporting the "artistic integrity" of Oscar-winning filmmaker William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Letts, the studio decided to keep the film intact and not edit it down to a more desired R rating. It was the right choice, especially since its badge of honor was earned for one specific incident in the third act of the film featuring a fried chicken drumstick. Touch that scene in any way and Killer Joe is a different movie.
Never mind the full frontal nudity, language, or hardcore violence. Besides the KFC scene, there's nothing that hasn't been seen or heard before in other NC-17 or hard R-rated movies with one other exception. As the title character, a contract killer in Texas hired to murder a mother so her twisted family can collect on the insurance policy, Matthew McConaughey is dangerously good. As the head of this diamondback-rattlesnake-of-a-film, he strikes within a sadistic realm very few actors would dare to tread. Killer Joe's venom is extremely palpable, which makes it all the more disturbing to watch.
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Dir. William Friedkin; writ. Tracy Letts; feat. Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Scott A. Martin, Marc Macaulay (NC-17)