William Friedkin hit critical pay dirt with his 2006 adaptation of playwright Tracy Letts’s motel-room freak-out, Bug, the film that let Ashley Judd stretch her performative legs and gave a well-deserved career boost to the great Michael Shannon. Given that success, it’s little surprise that Friedkin, no stranger to turning heads, chose Letts’s muck-wallowing Midwestern potboiler, Killer Joe (1993), as a follow-up. It begins boot-deep in grime, as debt-ridden dope Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) hatches a plot with trailer-trash dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to murder his mom for a lucrative insurance payout. They enlist the services of Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an assassin for hire who scoffs at the clueless duo’s several-installments payment plan—until he decides that Chris’s endearingly nutty sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), will be reward enough.
The murder is mostly a catalyst for Joe to insinuate himself into the other characters’ lives like a combination of The Exorcist’s demonic Pazuzu and Terence Stamp’s seductive houseguest from Teorema. He’s a grade-A psychotic-cum-psychoanalyst who refuses to leave until he’s exposed every bit of this broken-down family’s moral rot. Each of the performers clearly relishes Letts and Friedkin’s unapologetic luridness, with special props to the fearless Gina Gershon as Ansel’s sleazily manipulative gal pal (you won’t soon forget her part in the film’s most macabre bit of product placement). But it’s McConaughey who is the real revelation: All Grim Reaper strut and cutthroat stare, he savors each of Letts’s vividly ghoulish lines (“No, he wasn’t all right. He set his genitals on fire”) as if they contained the wisdom of the ages. The horrible, hilarious joke, of course, is that Joe is the void made flesh. And gazing into the abyss has rarely felt so good.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich