As a sadistic dallas cop who moonlights as a hit man, Matthew McConaughey is on fire in Killer Joe, fierce and ferociously funny. In fact, the Texas-born McConaughey, 42, has been blazing since he stopped spewing rom-com swill to do The Lincoln Lawyer. Since then, he’s etched a strong character portrait as a prosecutor in Bernie, shaken up Cannes as a gay reporter in The Paperboy and delivered a showstopping, Oscar-caliber turn as an aging stripper in Magic Mike.
In Killer Joe, the first play written by Tracy Letts (a Pulitzer winner for August: Osage County), McConaughey oozes good-old-boy charm and coiled menace. He owns the movie, which William Friedkin directs with the same hothouse intensity he brought to the 2006 film of Letts’ play Bug.
That intensity, violent and sexual, may have prudes bolting for the exits as Joe mixes it up with trailer trash. Emile Hirsch excels as Chris, who hires Joe to kill his mom. Sweet. The insurance will pay off his $6,000 gambling debt. Chris gets no help from his dim-bulb dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and Dad’s new wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon, a study in lurid), who answers doors not topless but bottomless. Since Chris can’t pay Joe, the lawman offers a trade for Chris’ virginal sister, Dottie (a terrific Juno Temple). Friedkin catches the dark humor of the piece, but excess brutality gets the better of him and the movie, especially the wince-inducing pain Joe doles out to Sharla (you’ll never look at a drumstick the same way again). Even when the film goes too far over the top to be saved, McConaughey mesmerizes.