Review: McConaughey is electric in Friedkin’s dark and wicked ‘Killer Joe’

William Friedkin’s career is marked by some all-time highs and some bewildering lows, and in recent years, he seems to have swung back to some sort of new fertility as a storyteller, energized perhaps by his collaboration with playwright Tracy Letts.  Their first collision on film was “Bug,” a deranged little character drama featuring Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd, both chewing the edges of the frame with abandon as they slid into madness together.  Now they’ve cooked up the very dark, often funny, ultimately very upsetting film “Killer Joe,” which begins a limited release roll-out this weekend with dates in New York.

Like “Bug,” this started life as a theater piece, and I can see how easily it could be staged in a small theater.  “Killer Joe” stretches its legs more than “Bug” ever did, with most of that film set in or around the same tiny claustrophobic motel room.  Here, we’ve got Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, and Thomas Haden Church as brother, sister, and father respectively.  Chris (Hirsch) is in trouble, in very serious debt to the very serious Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay), and he needs to come up with $6000.  He decides to kill his mother since she’s got a life insurance policy that will pay $50,000 to Dottie (Temple) when she dies.  Their father Ansel (Church), long since divorced from their mother, puts up a brief verbal struggle before pitching in to help plan things so he can get a cut, and his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) also wants a cut, but none of them actually want to do the act.  Instead, Chris decides to hire a hit man to make sure it gets done right.  He heard the name of one, a cop who does jobs on the side, and he arranges for him and his father to meet with this mysterious assassin, this Killer Joe.

Matthew McConaughey has been having a very good run of movies lately, and to listen to him tell it, he decided to mix things up and pursue roles that he really felt drawn to for a while.  He got to the point where he felt like every script he was getting was another version of a script he’s already done.  He was very good as a small-town sheriff in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” and his work in “Magic Mike” might be the single creepiest thing we’ll see on film this year… or at least, it might have been if not for “Killer Joe.”  The moment McConaughey arrives in this film, it becomes something else, something wicked and strange and scary.  For the most part, the first third of the movie is one long sly joke.  Hirsch and Church are playing the dimmest of dim bulbs, and there’s a distinctly comic rhythm to their frantic scramble to pretend they have working moral compasses before they put their plan into motion.  And there are big dark laughs to be mined from the dysfunctional marriage of Ansel and Sharla, with the introduction of Gershon’s character a particularly iconic and crazy and unflinching image that lets you know that things are going to get weird.

Killer Joe only does jobs if he’s paid upfront, and the whole reason that Chris and Ansel want him to do the job is so they can get the money.  He finally capitulates because he’s figured out what he wants as collateral:  Dottie.  She’s a spacey little bird, nervous and strange, a sweet-souled ding dong who touches something in the soul of this big bad wolf.  The moment Joe sees her, he wants to be with her.  He needs to be with her.  She seems to be in touch with some pure something that Joe doesn’t have in him at all anymore, and he wants to at least experience it second-hand.

Explaining any more than that would be unfair.  Suffice it to say Tracey Letts has a crazy sense of what is or isn’t funny or even acceptable for that matter.  I like how unfettered his character writing is, and how precise he is at etching details quickly but for a purpose.  Friedkin’s very good at winding up this wonderful cast and just letting them rip, and I think he also finds just the right visual language to underline the ideas that Letts is playing with.  One of Friedkin’s skills in his best films is finding the exact right way to end something, and “Killer Joe” has the best ending in a film by him since “To Live And Die In LA.”  This is a tough film, and I would recommend it only to audiences who want something uncompromisingly adult, but for those who are up for the ride, it is wickedly rewarding, and a nice reminder of just how good William Friedkin can be when given the right material.

“Killer Joe” opens today in NY, August 3 in LA, and then rolls out in limited release in the weeks ahead.