Twisted Cinema

In the NC-17-rated 'Killer Joe,' Matthew McConaughey offers a career-best performance

All hail sinister McConaughey.

For 15 years now, Matthew McConaughey has been a frustrating (and perhaps frustrated) movie star. He has big charisma and all the physical gifts to make up for a talent that may not ultimately go that deep, but he was never the kind of draw someone could build a franchise around. (Remember Sahara?) And in smaller films, McConaughey often looks out of his depth, retreating into almost no character at all. He had become little more than Matt Damon's famed impression of him—a fun-loving set of bronzed pectorals.

But it's been a good summer: Magic Mike allowed McConaughey to play up his obvious cinematic strengths and get a little weird, and now there's Killer Joe, offering one of the most memorable roles he's ever had—in one of the most disturbing films in which he'll ever star.

Chris (Emile Hirsch) has a problem: He's in deep to mobsters, and they've already paid him enough visits for him to know he can't put them off much longer and live to tell the tale. He takes his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to the local strip club to plot a win-win strategy: Chris' mother, Ansel's ex-wife, has a cherry of a life-insurance policy just waited to be plucked—$50,000 will go directly to Chris' sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), in the event of her untimely death.

Enter Joe (McConaughey), dressed in black from head to toe. He's on the force with the Dallas P.D., but contract killing pays very well. It's especially lucrative when he investigates his own crimes. Joe has a strict set of rules, one that involves being paid up front. Of course, if Chris and Ansel could afford that, they wouldn't need Joe. Joe's solution is for father and son to offer collateral—namely, Dottie.

Because everyone is so twisted, it's hard to take a rooting interest in any of the characters. This film started life as a stage play, so that sort of indecision might be palpable in front of a live audience, especially when things really start to tense up. For movie audiences, though, these things are generally decided for us, whether by casting, close-ups or some combination thereof. Chris and Ansel are not only horrible people; they're also stupid criminals. So all that's left is Joe or Dottie, who may not be fully there in the first place.

Director William Friedkin is best known for The Exorcist, with The French Connection not terribly far behind. Killer Joe is a really brave movie for a director with some kind of legacy—and for this cast as well. Friedkin certainly doesn't show signs of being in his 70s; this movie has fantastic energy—the pace quickens the closer we get to a final conflict—and, boy, does the action ever go off the deep end. Of course, this is a man whose essential work featured a preteen possessed by the devil masturbating with a religious symbol, so seeing Gina Gershon go to third base with a chicken drumstick may not be totally out of character in one of his films.

Friedkin also manages to imbue Killer Joe with a surprising a sense of humor. Sure, it's a sick sense of humor, but there's enough levity to create a safe distance from the matricide, family prostitution and fowl-atio. The laughs stop, however, when Joe becomes Killer Joe. And for the first time in his career, Matthew McConaughey takes complete control of a movie.

It seems peculiar that this is the role that finally clicked for McConaughey, playing a character so many light years away from his own easygoing personality. But somewhere within Joe's vicious, cold-blooded personality, McConaughey may have just earned clemency for a bushel of Kate Hudson romantic comedies.

It's not that he has never been good; his career actually has a few milestones, like U-571, Frailty and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, but those are hardly movies you think of immediately, if at all. He mostly bounces between Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Two for the Money, that kind of thing. But between Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe, 2011 and 2012 have been watershed years for him.

The best news for McConaughey is that Mike and Joe show completely different sides of him. It's been loudly whispered that he's portraying an exaggerated version of himself in Steven Soderbergh's male-stripper movie. Whatever; it works. But Killer Joe moves McConaughey into a different ZIP code, one where his motivations and focus are obviously different, and the results are captivating.

After being a punch line for so many years, and earning the distinction, it's cool to see Matthew McConaughey earning something else for a change.