The latest from William Friedkin may be the funniest film you see all year. It’s also likely the most disturbing and morally repugnant one—not for anything it espouses, but for the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel degradation of its motley cast of characters. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular Joe, a Dallas cop who runs a side business as a hit man and is hired by Chris (Emile Hirsch) and his trailer trash father (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmother (Gina Gershon) to kill Chris’s mother—whom no one seems to like much—to score an insurance payout. Chris needs the money to pay off a drug debt.
This is Friedkin’s second time in a row adapting a play by the playwright Tracy Letts, after his fantastic but barely seen 2006 take on Letts’s Bug. That films was a harrowing, claustrophobic psychological thriller that detailed one couple’s descent into madness. Killer Joe is probably no less harrowing, but its characters are less mad and more moronic, until they experience utter terror when they realize that their stupidity and desperation has led them to put themselves under the hard, unforgiving bootheel of a man—Joe—who is something approximating pure, sadistic evil.
It’s a shame the Academy would never touch a film with scenes as shocking as this—it earns its NC-17 rating and then some—with a ten-foot Oscar statue, because McConaughey is nothing short of brilliant here. Between this movie, his frightening and charismatic turn in Magic Mike, and Bernie and The Lincoln Lawyer recently, he is settling into his true calling, which isn’t so much being a romantic comedy star as it is a dark, dangerous character actor. He anchors both the dark humor and the frightening violence of this film. Friedkin, meanwhile, plays a trick that might be mean if it wasn’t so fascinating to see him pull off, which is that he blends laugh-out-loud humor with absolutely repulsive images, turning from one to the other on a dime in the same scene, forcing audiences to wind up laughing when they should be disturbed. It’s disorienting and unsettling, and while that might sound like a bad thing, it’s an absolute endorsement of what Friedkin accomplishes here.
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