I never thought I'd say this, but Matthew McConaughey is growing on me. Keep in mind: I'm a McConaughey cynic. Generally, I can't stand the guy. I've never understood his former "sexiest man alive" appeal, because, honestly, he's always read as smarmy, creepy, and vaguely reptilian to me. Who wants to watch an oily-haired slime ball romance all of America's sweethearts in every generic comedy? Um, not I. This year, though, something changed. Either McConaughey got sick of playing it safe or the typecast offers stopped rolling in, but he seems to have finally embraced his inner slimeball, and the results thus far have resulted in a pair of performances that are legitimately brilliant. Where in Magic Mike we watched the actor scuzz around for a bit of comic relief, in William Friedkin's (The Exorcist, The French Connection) daring Killer Joe, McConaughey gives a bold, downright maniacal turn in his role as the title character. Everything about this movie seems absolutely wrong, insanely uncomfortable, and morally reprehensible - including McConaughey's casting - that it works.
Killer Joe is a deliciously depraved journey into a full set of very dark hearts and very small minds. Without revealing any of the nasty nasty business to come, the opening scenes open up a soul sucking black hole of darkly comedic possibilities the film delivers on in ways that are actively disturbing. Set in the lowdown grime of a Texas trailer park, our first real introduction to the Smith clan comes in the form of a full frontal shot of Sharla's (Gina Gershon) pubic hair after she throws the front door open on her frantic, drug dealing stepson Chris (Emile Hirsch). His panic segues into an argument on her inability to put pants on when she answers the door in the middle of the night, and, well, bam. Welcome to the family, folks. Within minutes Chris has gathered his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) into the pickup, driven to the strip club so they can "talk" and convinced him they need to hire Killer Joe (McConaughey) -a dangerous police detective who moonlights as an assassin - to murder Chris's biological mother so they can collect the insurance money since Chris's rather slow, virgin little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is listed as the sole beneficiary. Sharla's a dirty Peg Bundy, Chris is a degenerate fuck-up, Ansel greedily goes along with anything that might help him out, and even sweet innocent Dottie (upon overhearing her brother's plot) cheerfully agrees they should have her mama killed.
The Smiths are stupid enough to get themselves wrapped up with a killer they can't afford on the hopes of all going according to plan, so much so that the offer they work out with him immediately casts them as villains potentially much worse than Joe himself. Killer Joe never bothers with false veneers and merely dabbles with empathy. The Smiths aren't good people. Joe isn't a good person. The person they set out to kill ain't so great herself. As reprehensible as they are, however, the performances here are phenomenal in the face of out and out bad taste. Bottom feeding exploitative plot elements become frighteningly compelling art that challenges its viewers to keep watching with a knowing smirk. This is an art film, and the audience (mostly blue-haired couples at my screening) seemed able to process it without outrage while still noting how vile its characters were. While the very very dark comedy lands, and the screenplay is smart, I can't say enough about the cast. As good as they all are, McConaughey and Juno Temple make the inconceivable appear painless. Killer Joe is a villain for the ages. He's a dark cowboy crossed onto the wrong side of the law who speaks in a slow drawl, pierces you with his eyes, and draws you in the way only the most dangerous predators can.
McConaughey switches his slimy charm on and immediately off, going dead behind the eyes, visibly tensing, edging slowly towards a breaking point that we can feel coming on like a sudden shift in atmospheric pressure. He's terrifying and hypnotic, a career maniac who can only appear levelheaded when set against the vile, stupid, moneygrubbing Smiths. Temple is the perfect foil, even if her role is problematic. Over the span of her short career she's shown herself willing to put herself in compromising positions, and here the lengths she goes to are as painful as they are powerful. Dottie is the only light in Killer Joe, and her sweetness seems almost enchanted when contrasted to the grunged-out surroundings of down and out Texas. Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts force us to wonder about her as well. If the most innocent character in the film has no moral qualms regarding the brutal execution of her mother, who do we side with? The answer: entertainment. Killer Joe is unsettling entertainment, but entertainment that succeeds at subverting our expectations, playing with cultural cinematic commodities, and giving us something new.