Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Remember when Matthew McConaughey was nothing more than a walking, talking punch line? It shouldn't be too difficult to recall that time, being that it was merely 16 months ago, before last year's surprise hit The Lincoln Lawyer reminded the masses just how charismatic and gifted an actor the man can be when he's not slumming it in ditzy material like Surfer, Dude and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
Since then, McConaughey has been on one hell of a roll, pitching in strong co-starring performances as a D.A. in Richard Linklater's severely underrated black comedy Bernie and an ego-maniacal strip club overseer in this summer's Magic Mike. Those roles, it turns out, were merely warm-ups for McConaughey's 2012 main event: playing the titular character in the great director William Friedkin's (The Exorcist, The French Connection) sleazy, brutal, and inappropriately hilarious blast of uncompromising, exploitative pulp titled Killer Joe. If there's a braver, better, and more commanding performance to praise in the summer of 2012, it's yet to be seen.
Adapting his own stage play, Killer Joe screenwriter Tracy Letts once again forms a superb alliance with Friedkin; the duo previously worked together on the filmmaker's 2006 psychological horror freak-out Bug, also based on one of Letts' theatre productions. Here, Letts and Friedkin go balls-to-the-wall with a Texas-set yarn full of double-crosses, bottom-feeders, bloody violence, and disquieting hilarity. Killer Joe is a police detective who secretively earns extra dollars as a contract murderer; one fella who's aware of Joe's side hustle is Chris (Emile Hirsch), a good-for-nothing dude who presents a get-rich-quick scheme to his moronic father (Thomas Haden Church), and, reluctantly, dad's unpleasant new squeeze (Gina Gershon, giving an incredibly bold turn). Chris, who's $6,000 in debt over misplaced drugs, has learned that his birth mother, whom everyone hates, comes with a $50,000 life insurance policy, so his bright idea is to pay Killer Joe to bump her off and split the money evenly.
There's a problem, though: Chris doesn't have the $25,000 needed for Joe's down payment. Meanwhile, Joe takes a liking to Chris' little sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), a wide-eyed, impressionable virgin. She's also Joe's retainer.
Once the simple, old-school noir plot's chips are all in place, Killer Joe wastes no time before introducing several complications into Chris' scheme, not the least of which is Joe's concealed insanity. On the surface, he's a man of few words, and the words he does use are all calculated, confident, and direct; deep down, however, Joe is a ticking time bomb of rage, and all it doesn't take much to set him off. It's in the character's darkest, scariest actions that McConaughey truly impresses; going against every expectation his past romantic comedy roles and pretty boy labelings have burdened him with, the actor embodies flesh-and-blood evil as the eponymous hitman, unleashing an avalanche of fury as Killer Joe explodes in its final act. Even before the film's unbelievably batshit climax, McConaughey exudes domineering power, specifically during a masterful "first date" sequence in which Joe wines and dines Dottie with tuna casserole before deflowering her from behind.
Aside from McConaughey, the acting in Killer Joe is uniformly first-rate. Church, to his credit, is downright hysterical as the movie's dumbest simpleton, providing many of the laughs with his beautifully dimwitted interjections and observations; on the estrogen front, both Gershon and Temple abandon all inhibitions to embody unrelenting shamefulness and gullible innocence, respectively.
With such an exceptional ensemble at his disposal, Friedkin also adheres to zero restrictions, relishing in the fact that all of Killer Joe's characters are despicable in their own rights, save for Dottie, yet never painting any of them in a contemptuous light. Friedkin operates with a wicked indifference—he doesn't seem to care whether the viewer empathizes with these people or simply loathes each and every one. They're human, and, as Killer Joe makes abundantly, and bleakly, clear, humans do terrible things to one another in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Take it or leave it.
And just how terrible are we talking here? It's worth nothing that Killer Joe was given the dreaded NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Though giving the film higher than a hard-R is certainly overkill, and will sadly hurt its chances at being seen by its deserved wide audience, it's not hard to pinpoint why the board went the NC-17 route. As mentioned earlier, Killer Joe's plot culminates into one of the craziest and most pulverizing finales to bumrush cinema in quite some time.
It's an extended scene staged with savagery and uncomfortable humor inside a claustrophobic mobile home, where McConaughey pounds his way to shocking infamy, Friedkin pushes buttons with steel-tipped fingers, and his ability to draw laughs out of the nastiest situations rings loud and clear. Whether Killer Joe goes too far or not isn't the point—that Friedkin and his admirably game cast had the brazenness to recklessly sell every unsentimental second of Letts' story should be its selling point. Those intrepid enough to buy it are in for one sick treat.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)