2012 was a good year for Matthew McConaughey, as the actor emerged from years of bad rom-coms and other forgettable roles with stand-out performances in "Bernie," "Magic Mike," and as the title character in "Killer Joe" (maybe McConaughey should only do movies with first names in the title). The latter film, adapted from actor-playwright Tracy Letts' black comedy by director William Friedkin (who previously collaborated on the 2006 film "Bug"), offers some in-your-face Texan nastiness, much of it courtesy of Killer Joe himself. The total conviction McConaughey brings to the role of a psychotic cop turned contract killer is impressive. This is one film he didn't do for the paycheck.
The tagline for the movie called it "A totally twisted, deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story." That story, in a nutshell, concerns the various complications that ensue when the dangerously insane, sexually menacing, yet pretty dang funny Killer Joe is hired by the highly dysfunctional Smith family. The Smiths are a motley crew indeed: passive father figure Ansel (Thomas Haden Church); his cheating wife Sharla (Gina Gershon, whose introduction is a shot of her unshorn pubic hair (not to worry, folks, it was a wig, or a merkin, or whatever you'd call it); the brain-damaged but angelic Dottie (Juno Temple), who is part of Joe's compensation for services rendered; and ne'er-do-well weakling Chris (Emile Hirsch), who sets the plot in motion in the first act. Like this year's other dialog-heavy hit man movie, "Killing Them Softly," the action is dictated by the incompetent actions of none-too-bright criminal lowlifes.
Friedkin opens things up slightly from the play, which had a memorable Off-Broadway run in 1998 with Scott Glenn as Joe, Amanda Plummer as Sharla, Michael Shannon as Ansel, and Sarah Paulson as Dottie. Their movie counterparts certainly deliver the goods, taking a lot of punishment in the process, with Gershon and Hirsch's characters withstanding some heavy brutality from McConaughey (you'll never looked at a chicken wing the same way again). Temple is a revelation as Dottie, imbuing the character with vulnerability, hidden strength, and raw sexuality. As the spineless Ansel, Thomas Haden Church brings his native Texan-ness to the table, as well as convincingly portraying a man who desperately wants to keep from getting his ass kicked.
The film's stage roots are apparent, but the result is a transgressive entertainment that somehow works as a film. To be sure, some viewers may be turned off by either the violence or the unflattering redneck stereotypes, but Letts' crackling dialog and the actors, especially McConaughey, help make the film an instant cult classic.
"Killer Joe" played the festival circuit in 2011 before getting a theatrical release last year. It is now available in an unrated director's cut on Blu-Ray and DVD from Lions Gate.