Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch. Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by William Friedkin. 18A. 102 min. Opens Aug. 10.
Has any major Hollywood star ever taken the kind of hard left turn that has made Matthew McConaughey the man of the moment? However cool he was in Dazed & Confused, it’s still a challenge to connect the smug himbo who sleepwalked through the likes of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past with the wild-eyed, thong-wearing impresario we see in Magic Mike or the demonic Texan lawman he plays in Killer Joe, a movie that’s nasty enough to earn him a lifetime ban from the whole rom-com genre.
Not that McConaughey seems to miss much about making nice with Kate Hudson. He’s too busy relishing the opportunities he gets playing a smooth-talking cop and professional hitman in this grimy saga of a white-trash family with murderous ambitions. With his second adaptation of a play by Tracy Letts (after 2006’s similarly gonzo Bug), director William Friedkin invites viewers to revel in the misfortunes that befall Chris (Emile Hirsch), his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon) after they enlist McConaughey’s titular character to kill Chris’ no-good mother. Since they can’t pay his fee until they get the insurance money, they allow Joe to have Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral. Oddly gentlemanly in his manner towards the young woman, and more menacing to the rest of her kin, Joe is like a shark swimming with guppies. It’s only a matter of time before this craven trio of yokels incurs his wrath for real.
Of course, Joe’s presence is but a catalyst for the power struggles and incestuous urges that already run rampant in the clan. Originally written when Letts was only 26, this unholy hybrid of a Jim Thompson crime story and one of Sam Shepard’s more lyrical accounts of familial warfare is marred by a sense of overreach that’s typical of a young playwright. What makes the film so exhilarating is the brio that Friedkin’s actors display as their characters descend to ever lower levels of viciousness. And no one enjoys this trip to hell more than McConaughey—he’s like the devil’s new best brah.