Killer Joe | Movie review
Matthew McConaughey delivers a terrifying performance in William Friedkin’s nasty Texas noir.
Will 2012 be remembered as the year professional ab-flasher Matthew McConaughey reinvented himself as a magnetic character actor? The Texas heartthrob delivered two of his strongest performances in Bernie and Magic Mike. The midcareer renaissance continues with Killer Joe, in which McConaughey’s aw-shucks congeniality hardens into reptilian menace. As the titular heavy, a black-clad Dallas detective who murders for money, the actor reveals a heretofore hidden talent for cold-blooded intimidation. His hit man is a silver-tongued Southern gentleman whose gift for polite conversation belies his fundamental ruthlessness.
McConaughey’s predatory assassin may be the scariest of Killer Joe’s scoundrels, but he’s no more unscrupulous than the rest. This is one of those gleefully tasteless, scuzz-bucket noirs in which everyone onscreen is hopelessly corrupt: the in-too-deep gambler (Emile Hirsch) who hires Joe to off his own mother for the insurance money; the gambler’s loutish, trailer-trash father (Thomas Haden Church, hilariously dense) and two-timing stepmother (Gina Gershon), both accomplices to the crime; even Juno Temple’s barely legal basket case, the sister/daughter offered as a sacrificial lamb (or “retainer”) to secure Joe’s services.
William Friedkin, that old ’70s genre pro, seems reinvigorated by this cast of amoral schemers and their seedy stomping grounds. The filmmaker’s second collaboration with Tracy Letts—who, as with Bug (2006), adapted his own pressure-cooker play—Killer Joe feels stagy in all the right ways. The best moments are claustrophobic showdowns in enclosed spaces, none more suspenseful or darkly comic than a lewd, NC-17-worthy interrogation. You’ll never look at that drawling beach bum McConaughey—or fried chicken—the same way.