Matthew McConaughey Gives Viewers a Strong Jolt of Reckoning in ‘Killer Joe’

The year 2012 was a year of righteous vindication for those of us who had stuck by Matthew McConaughey during the lean years of the Aughts, when he seemed content to coast along, taking roles in interchangeable (and generally terrible) romantic comedies, trading off his considerable charm to ever diminishing returns, seemingly lost in a stoned out haze of squandered talent and self-parodying shirtlessness. Starting with 2011’s legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, though, and continuing along with Magic Mike and Killer Joe (along with a string of cameos in other films) Mateo has reemerged from whatever surf-and-sand chrysalis he’d been hanging out in and become again a force to be reckoned with, turning his lackadaisical persona inside out and uncovering the slippery menace that had always lurked beneath his aw-shucks demeanor.

If his turn as Dallas, the stripper impresario running the all male strip club in Magic Mike was his big crowd pleasing return to form for the ladies (strutting around like a peacock, eternally shirtless), then his titular role in William Friedkin’s gleefully nihilistic Killer Joe is the bitter afterburn, a strong jolt of reckoning for everyone who had dismissed McConaughey over the last decade.

Bleak, sadistic, but oddly (if darkly) comedic, Killer Joe is a nasty piece of work, a loopy hillbilly noir that seems to channel Double Indemnity by way of Raising Arizona and the worst of tabloid TV. Plot-wise it’s fairly rote, hewing close to seedy genre tropes: a life insurance policy; a ne’er do well son incapable of making any sort of correct decision; a drug deal gone wrong; a stony, remorseless hit man; an improbable chain of ever worsening events; and, of course, everyone being duped out of the money in the end (does the sort of blindspot for life insurance scams and their inevitable failure only exist in movies? Have these people never actually seen movies or TV? There’s only one way life insurance schemes ever go.)

The devil, of course, lies in the details – and the delivery – and this is where Killer Joe separates itself from the pack, elevating itself above B-movie exploitation fare into… well, A-movie exploitation fare. Working from his own play, screenwriter Tracy Letts winds up the clockwork of his story in the opening minutes, almost daring us to dismiss it as something we’ve all seen before (and better), before taking a few abrupt right and left hand turns pretty quickly, raising the stakes and venturing of into terribly dark moral territory.

Showing up in the middle of the night in the pouring rain at his father’s trailer (it just seems to be perpetually the middle of the night in a horrible rainstorm in this particular trailer park, even during the middle of the day when it’s sunny), loose cannon Chris begs for ten grand to pay back some drug dealer for a giant load of cocaine that his (Chris’) mother stole out from under him. They hatch a scheme to bump off the mother (of course), who has a $50,000 life insurance policy against her – but also of course, it has to look like an accident in order for them to collect. Or, specifically, for the daughter (Chris’ sister), Dottie, to collect, since she is supposedly the sole beneficiary.

So, to do the job “right”, they get a hold of Joe Cooper, a Dallas homicide detective who just happens to moonlight as a contract killer (convenient). McConaughey’s Killer Joe is a marvelous creation, playing on our perceived notions of the actor’s persona and career, turning his agreeably laconic, drawling, easy going demeanor on its head, revealing a menacingly charismatic, tightly wound (though still laid back and laconic) drawling psychopath, all the while maintaining his potent mix of slithery charm and primal sexual allure. I mean, we all know that he’s going to reveal himself to be one bad dude (his name is Killer Joe, come on!), but right out of the gate he exudes a palpable sense of dread and danger that oozes straight out of the screen the moment he appears, despite his surface affability.

Showing up for an appointment at the trailer to meet with Chris and his dad to arrange the deal, Joe instead finds only young daughter Dottie at home. You can see the glint of lust in his eye as he sizes her up from the doorway, watching her kickbox in front of the TV in short shorts and a halter top. He’s found his real prey, his real target, and no matter how the deal works out or doesn’t, or if there’s a contract or an insurance payment or anything, the wheels are already in motion.

Finally meeting with Chris and his father later, Joe demands payment up front for the job. Since the insurance payment is supposed to fund the hit, they of course are penniless, so Joe asks for a “retainer”, knowingly staring Chris down. After putting up a front of outrage at the notion of basically whoring out his sister, Chris consents, and Joe returns later that night to claim his prize.

This is the point where I will step back and allow you the viewer to experience what follows without spoil. About the moment when Joe shows up for his dinner “date” with Dottie is also the moment where Killer Joe morphs from a standard, and forgettable, John Dahl type neo-noir into something nastier and funnier… and, disturbingly, sexier. Part of this is attributable, of course, to McConaughey’s innate sex appeal, which wants to seduce and repulse the viewer in equal measure.

But a good amount of credit for the film’s transformation from squalid crime drama into psychosexual “comedy” rests on the shoulder of Juno Temple, who plays Dottie as one of the more unique and unsettling sexpots in recent movies. Of indeterminate age somewhere between young teenager and mid-twenty something (Chris mentions that she’s 21 at some point, but she could just as well be in high school), she comes on as a virginal naïf, an unmolested Lolita luring in Joe (and probably her own brother) with her vapid sexiness.

Well, vapid until she actually starts to speak, in a lilting, sing song, spectral drawl, channeling some sort of savantish seer capable of peering down into the abyss of everyone’s degraded soul. I’d say Temple turns on a dime between these two personas flawlessly, but she’s doing something even better–she manages to fuse the two sides of Dottie so completely that they are always present. It’s all very unsettlingly seductive, and seductively unsettling. Temple, who has been around for a few years but hasn’t done anything too notable (though did play another young sexpot in the genuinely terrible indie Dirty Girl), is the secret weapon, and real breakout star, of Killer Joe. Every second she’s on screen crackles with electric energy and sexual tension, and she proves equal to just about everything the film throws at her (and it throws a lot).

William Friedkin, in his second paring with playwright Letts (their previous collaboration, Bug, was less successful, despite a brauva turn by Ashley Judd), strikes the proper balance of adorning the film with the propulsive headlong fatalistic rush of B-movie noir while maintaining the integrity of its origins on stage. While some action flits around the dingy back alleys, strip clubs and pool halls on the outskirts of Dallas, most of the film takes place in the main room of the trailer home. While calling attention to the script’s staginess, it also cranks up the claustrophobia and psychosexual paranoia that starts to seep into then boil over every scene.

The final scene (the outrageous offensiveness of which helps Killer Joe rightly earn it’s NC-17 rating) feels like it’s going to explode straight out of the frame after having been squeezed and coiled so tightly for 90 minutes. It’s harrowing and infuriating and almost unwatchable, but again hypnotically seductive, driven straight to hell by McConaughey’s Joe finally unleashing his full fury, threatening to destroy the family in one single blow – until Dottie turns the tables on him–and us–suddenly, threatening to bring down her own form of biblical wrath, until the screen goes suddenly black. The shock of irresolution may be Killer Joe‘s nastiest trick, and most satisfying.

Killer Joe’s Blu-ray release has a bevy of decent extras. The standard behind the scenes feature (about 30 minutes) has the normal mix of interviews and laudatory praise thrown about between cast and crew. A 40 minute video of the Q+A session that followed the film’s debut at the SXSW Film Festival (with most of the cast present) isn’t as watchable, if only because the audio is spotty and some of the questions are tedious or inane (as things tend to be at film festivals). Friedkin’s feature length commentary is a excellent though, an elder statesmen and master holding forth, making every topic he touches on, no matter how picayune or technical, fascinating—and he seems to take particular glee in pushing the film and the actors as far as he can to earn the film its NC-17 rating. Glad to see he’s lost none of his appetite for outrage from his heyday in the ’70s.

RATING 7 / 10