Matthew McConaughey is this generation’s Robert Mitchum. This isn’t to say that the prime years McConaughey squandered shirtless in dire romantic comedies put him on equal footing with the iconic star of The Night Of The Hunter and Out Of The Past. But they have the same dangerous magnetism—lithe, relaxed, preternaturally self-assured, and almost feminine in their power to seduce. Their respective drawls suggest different things—McConaughey’s promises a good time, Mitchum’s something darker—but they’re both especially effective in roles where their charisma baits a trap. Watching them at work is like witnessing Nosferatu’s mesmeric powers at play in the real world.
Following up terrific roles as a flummoxed D.A. in Bernie and a greased-up strip-club proprietor in Magic Mike, McConaughey tops a resurgent 2012 as the eponymous character in Killer Joe, a redneck noir that bristles with sleazy wit. McConaughey plays a police detective who moonlights as a contract killer, a double life that gives McConaughey an advantage in investigative cover-ups (see also: Morgan, Dexter), but one that requires careful management so McConaughey doesn’t cross the streams. He’s utterly psychotic, but he keeps his anger and creepy peccadilloes in check while spending much of his time leveraging power and control from the desperate, greedy pond scum that requires his services. Whatever threat he poses is hidden behind the eyes.
Based on Tracy Letts’ play and directed by William Friedkin—the same team that produced the unhinged melodrama Bug five years ago—Killer Joe updates Double Indemnity for the trailer-park set, which means bypassing clever entendre in favor of straight-up venality and sleaze. (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity gets introduced with a shot of her ankle bracelet; here, Gina Gershon shows up bare below the waist.) Wasting no time in putting the plot in motion, the film opens with Emile Hirsch paying a late-night visit to a Dallas mobile home owned by his dimwit father (Thomas Haden Church) and his foul stepmother (Gershon). A would-be drug dealer and full-time fuck-up, Hirsch owes a few thousand dollars to local mobsters who have run out of patience.
Having just been kicked out of his mother’s home, Hirsch enlists Church in a scheme to kill the woman and split the $50,000 life-insurance policy, correctly assuming that greed and lingering acrimony from the divorce will get the old man on board. Hirsch’s idea is to hire McConaughey, a professional, to do the job he clearly doesn’t have the will to pull off himself. But he doesn’t have the $25,000 payment needed to secure the hit man’s services, and McConaughey wisely rejects the proposal that he wait until the policy pays off, then claim his money. What he suggests instead is a retainer: In lieu of a down payment, McConaughey wants Hirsch to hand over his virginal younger sister (Juno Temple) as collateral until the transaction is settled.
Letts and Friedkin seem both a natural pair and way the hell over the top together: As with Bug, Letts’ work is overheated enough without Friedkin turning up the gas. Yet Killer Joe, adapted from Letts’ first play, isn’t confined to the tin-lined pressure cooker of a single locale, or to two characters spiraling into paranoia and histrionics. Without losing any of Bug’s intensity, Killer Joe spins a lot of dumb hick behavior into a wellspring of comedy and plot twists, recalling Raising Arizona’s colorful vernacular while turning a simple contract job into a complicated web of family betrayals. And the hicks in question have their distinctions, from McConaughey’s languid smooth-talker to Gershon’s utterly shameless femme fatale to a brilliantly funny Church as one of the dumbest characters in screen history, like a slowed-down, live-action version of Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel.
Like any worthwhile exploitation movie, Killer Joe aims for maximum impact—more than the rating system could abide, in fact, given its NC-17 label—but Letts and Friedkin’s impulse to provoke can be both a strength and a weakness. A long sequence where McConaughey tries to deflower Temple, starting with a romantic dinner over tuna casserole and ending in a silver-tongued act of coercion, is a masterpiece of sinister manipulation that’s disturbing, yet carefully wrought. (And not far removed from the predatory habits of McConaughey’s Dazed And Confused character.) But the film’s most notorious scene—the one that surely secured the rating, a sequence that offers KFC the least appetizing product placement imaginable—also catapults it into a realm of savagery and abuse that overwhelms everything that comes before it. It’s provocation for provocation’s sake.
Still, Friedkin’s pedal-to-the-metal approach to genre filmmaking—evident in great films like The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer, and To Live And Die In L.A., plus a few dismal ones, too—gives Killer Joe the energy and breakneck pace Letts’ work demands. This is not some nostalgia-soaked throwback to the noir of old, but a rude, shit-kicking thriller that co-opts—and merrily defiles—a classic like Double Indemnity. Whatever its shortcomings, at least they’re never failures of nerve.