Killer Joe ★★★½

Watching this movie is akin to being Steve Buscemi in "Fargo" when Peter Stormare shoots the highway patrolman in the head: the only response that I could muster was "whoa daddy." It's not really fair to say that this is a movie that gets under your skin -- "Killer Joe" is a movie that shoves bamboo shoots underneath your fingernails.

With their second collaboration, playwright Tracy Letts and director William Friedkin create a film that feels like John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" turned into noir pulp. It takes a generic potboiler about murder-for-hire and then fills the third act with so much depravity that I could only sit there with my mouth agape. It's populated with characters so morally bankrupt that the word "social blight" doesn't really seem to do them justice. These are the people who Travis Bickle stayed up at night dreaming about.

At the center of it all is Matthew McConaughey as the titular killer, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a hit man. He is hired by Emile Hirsch to kill Hirsch's mother in an insurance scam. When Hirsch is unable to pay in advance, McConaughey decides to insinuate himself into the family after being smitten with Hirsch's sister Dottie (Juno Temple). There's always been a hint of sociopathy with McConaughey's performances (I'm pretty sure it's the smile), but here he is able to crank the crazy/menacing up to eleven. I can't remember the last time I've seen such a predatory character in a film. Seriously, McConaughey is channeling a jungle panther or something. His is an absolutely iconic performance.

But McConaughey is nearly upstaged by Juno Temple, who delivers a knockout performance as the object of his affection. There is a fantastic "other-ness" to her that is impossible to describe. She seems to be emotionally stunted yet strangely mature, mentally deficient yet conniving. It's like she's operating on a completely separate plane of existence than the rest of the characters, and it's captivating.

I wish I could say the same for Emile Hirsch, who was the weak spot of the entire film and nearly managed to sink the whole thing in the first fifteen minutes. I still believe Hirsch is a fine actor, but he is not versatile enough to play a convincing Texas trailer park drug dealer. It's like Hirsch didn't get the memo about how stupid his character is supposed to be.

Still, "Killer Joe" is a marvel. It's an absolutely uncompromising film from a director who appears to be reaching his late-career stride. It seems to wear its NC-17 rating proudly. Not everything about the film works, but it is still a pleasure to see that movies like this can still get made and hopefully find an audience.

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