By Betsy Sharkey Los Angeles Times
Out of the muck and mire of human depravity that is “Killer Joe,” something magnificent comes: a brilliant performance by Matthew McConaughey.
The actor has already had a stellar year playing lowlifes. But his dirty Dallas detective, Joe Cooper, who has a lucrative sideline as a hitman, is arguably the best of the worst, out-sleazing his East Texas prosecutor in “Bernie” and out-stripping his Xquisite club manager in “Magic Mike.”
Never has the actor’s molasses drawl been more lethal.
Never has noir been more diabolically naughty either.
The film, directed by William Friedkin and adapted by Tracy Letts from his play, is ostensibly about the complications of a contract killing.
Chris (Emile Hirsch), a hapless drug dealer, has no prospects, an overdue debt to his supplier and an angry mother. Getting rid of mom and collecting the life insurance payoff seems the easy, maybe the only, answer.
But it will require help from the family: his grease-monkey dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church); hyper-sexualized stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon); and his slightly dazed and confused beauty of a sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), who is the sole beneficiary of the policy.
“Killer Joe” is a brash bid for a comeback from a director who has had many fallow years since his 1970s heyday. The tension-building that helped earn Friedkin an Oscar for 1971’s “The French Connection” and the satanic chill of “The Exorcist” in ‘73 make their way into “Killer Joe,” but none of the restraint is here.
That makes this toxic slice of Texas crime lore exceedingly hard to stomach.
Though death hangs over the proceedings, it is not the end game.
The film is really more of a leering look at the way in which serious intimidation can lead people to submit to humiliating things and how far a filmmaker is willing to push it. Fried chicken will never be the same after a particularly tasteless dinner scene.
Neither will Dottie. She’s the collateral Joe wants, because there is no money for his upfront fees. His slow but deliberate seduction of the 20-year-old virgin is as mesmerizing as it is wrong, and it is so very wrong.
Chris is as close as the film comes to a good guy. Plot twists keep the pressure building, and the internal struggle between morality and expedience resonates in Hirsch’s flailing.
When death finally does come calling in “Killer Joe,” it is horrifically brutal but delivered, like much of the other carnal carnage, with a punch line.
By far the film’s deadliest weapon is McConaughey. The way the actor leans into threats, dropping his voice, wrapping eloquence in sinister tones, is skin-crawling. The muscles in his neck literally seem to tense one by one. And if the eyes are the window to the soul, you really don’t want to peer for long into his.
It is not an easy performance to watch, but it is unforgettable.
The cast around McConaughey is excellent at capturing the ethos of down-and-out blue-collar life. The film is heavily salted with a distinctive Texas flavor and deep-fried in noir by the exceptional cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (five Oscar nominations, including “The Natural”).
“Killer Joe” (3 stars)
A tale of a contract killing, blue collar morality, or lack of it, in East Texas, with a virtuoso performance by Matthew McConaughey as the hitman. Also starring Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon.
Rated: NC-17 for graphic, disturbing content involving violence and sexuality and a scene of brutality.
Showing: Harvard Exit.