Matthew McConaughey transforms from heartthrob to hit man.
As God is my witness, I’ll never make fun of Matthew McConaughey again.
After almost 20 years of squandered promise and more shirtless himbo roles than I care to count, the drawling good-time bongo enthusiast has improbably become 2012’s comeback kid. McConaughey’s scene-stealing supporting turn in Magic Mike was some masterful sleight of hand, as he grandiosely played up his pinup persona as a calculated cover for deeper currents we hadn’t really seen before. But Killer Joe is something else altogether. It’s the full-scale obliteration of an image, subverting McConaughey’s star charisma for such nefarious purposes that the character already feels iconic.
I’m still shocked this movie even exists. Director William Friedkin’s NC-17 adaptation of Tracy Letts’ 1993 play is a go-for-broke outrage. It’s visceral and sadistic, yet has a fiendish sense of humor about its fundamental depravity. The movie is plain wrong on so many levels, and I loved every minute of it.
A Texas trailer-trash tragicomedy with an air of divine retribution, Letts’ story takes place in a moral sewer. Two-bit coke dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) finds himself deep in debt to some very dangerous people after his deadbeat mom absconds with a couple of his ounces. Chris’ slow-witted, drunkard father (Thomas Haden Church) can’t offer much help. He’s too busy trying to keep tabs on his feral second wife (Gina Gershon), who doesn’t see why it’s such a big deal that she answers the front door bottomless. The fearless Gershon’s jaw-dropping entrance serves as Friedkin’s statement of purpose. He’s announcing in the opening moments that all bets are off, kids.
The only way out for Chris is his mother’s insurance policy, which bequeaths a fair amount of money to his possibly brain-damaged sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Enter the local legend named Killer Joe Cooper, a police detective who does a little wet-work on the side for fun and profit.
Dressed in all black and slowing his movements down to a feline crawl, McConaughey’s Killer Joe dominates the picture the minute he walks through the door. He carries himself with a peculiar, finicky elegance that immediately sets him above the cast of yammering hayseeds. There’s a sleepy-eyed menace to the performance that recalls Robert Mitchum in the way every pause is freighted with the potential for violence.
Of course, the Smiths are sorely lacking any front money for their intended matricide, so Joe accepts deferred payment in the form of “a retainer.” That retainer happens to be Dottie’s virginity.
If you’re thinking that any family who’d pimp out their daughter in an effort to murder their mother deserves every horrible thing they have coming, you’re probably right. An undeniably satisfying feeling is created, as the movie works simply by presenting McConaughey as an unholy avenger, psychologically tearing the Smiths apart and forcing them to confront their transgressions.
But what makes Killer Joe so audacious is how brazenly Friedkin and Letts muck with audience expectations, shoving that very bloodlust back in our faces, as if they’re taunting us. So you think this is what you want to see? Are you sure? Are you really sure?
Friedkin has been doing this kind of thing for over 40 years. The French Connection, The Exorcist and To Live and Die in L.A. are brutal exercises expertly designed to work over crowds. His movies make you queasy. He’s got a rare command of jagged cuts, and few filmmakers employ sound design to such unsettling effect. All the barking dogs and blaring TVs in Killer Joe provide a constant aural distress signal that bleeds in from outside the frame.
Sure, he had a rough couple of decades, with forgotten thrillers like Rules of Engagement and The Hunted. Friedkin’s ugly, punitive proclivities are ill-suited to the assembly-line, would-be blockbusters he was assigned to direct. But redemption arrived when he broke away from the major studios and discovered Letts. Friedkin returned to form with an adaptation of Letts’ Bug, a harrowing, two-character play that became an almost unbearably visceral 2006 indie starring Michael Shannon and a revelatory Ashley Judd. I fondly recall watching an opening night audience streaming for the exits at the 30-minute mark.
And now, less than a month shy of his 77th birthday, Friedkin’s unleashed the wickedest provocation of his career. The final act of Killer Joe is so monstrous, hideously funny and deeply unnerving that I still can’t believe what I saw.
All I know is that I’ll never look at fried chicken the same way again.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon. Screenplay by Tracy Letts, based on his stage play. Directed by William Friedkin. At Boston Common and Kendall Square.