Matthew McConaughey’s early 2000s comeback has become the stuff of legend, possibly only rivaled by Robert Downey Jr’s career resurrection as Iron Man or John Travolta every decade or so. After his breakthrough role as the charmingly skeezy Wooderson in Dazed and Confused (a role that he got by going out drinking for the evening and ending up being cast in a movie), he took on a number of a number of increasingly shiny prestige movies like the legal thriller A Time to Kill and Amistad (and some others like this). He then abruptly swerved into romantic comedies and other popcorn far, which eventually culminated in him fighting dragons with Christian Bale in a post-apocalyptic Great Britain in Reign of Fire and encountering the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. One of the key roles in Matthew McConaughey’s comeback is one of the least remembered and most lurid: 2011’s Killer Joe. Out of nowhere, this gritty dark comedy is in the top ten most-watched films on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Killer Joe stars Matthew McConaughey as the titular character, Texan Detective Joe Cooper. Why do they call him “Killer Joe?” Pretty simple, he is an unnervingly charming psychopath of a corrupt cop who will murder people for money. The movie begins (and mostly takes place) in a West Dallas trailer park in the middle of the night. Rain is torrentially pouring. A chained-up pitbull is frantically barking. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is frantically pounding on the door of his father Ansel’s (Thomas Haden Church) trailer because he owes $6000 to some drug dealers after his own mother ripped off his money. That’s the kind of warm family interaction that Matthew McConaughey wanders into and at no point does it get better.
Like so many examples of film noir, Killer Joe revolves around someone trying to take advantage of an insurance policy. In this case, Chris quickly hatches a plan to have Matthew McConaughey kill his own mother for the insurance payout. Ansel and his live-in girlfriend Sharla (a delightfully trashy Gina Gershon) are quickly onboard to have his ex-wife murdered. There is only one problem: the beneficiary of the policy is Chris’s teenage sister Dottie (a pre-Ted Lasso Juno Temple). They quickly throw a plan together to fool Dottie, but part of the very, very dark humor of the movie is how immediately even the naive and innocent girl agrees to have her own mother killed by a creepy Matthew McConaughey.
Suffice it to say, nothing goes well for anyone in Killer Joe. At this point in his comeback, Matthew McConaughey was teaching a master class on how to turn charisma into the most unsettling thing you’ve ever seen on screen, and this movie is no exception. As in his queasy, chest-beating one-scene wonder in Wolf of Wall Street or his Academy Award-winning sleaze in Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey had finally perfected turning all of his charms into something dark and disturbing without making himself truly repellent. And that is saying something, considering Killer Joe has a scene that involves him using a fried chicken drumstick in a very, very distressing way.
Killer Joe is not a movie for the faint of heart, but full of astonishing talent. In addition to Matthew McConaughey, the cast are doing sterling work. It was directed by William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., based on a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Letts. Letts adapted his own work for the movie; he and Friedkin had also collaborated a few years earlier for a sordid, intense adaptation of his play Bug starring Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd. Just to round out the talent, the grim photography was shot by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and the music by well-regarded composer Tyler Bates.
Yet Killer Joe was largely shunned at award season. Most likely, a movie in which Matthew McConaughey gets involved in a disturbing sexual relationship with a teenager while plotting to kill her mother just did not sit right with critics. It originally received the dreaded NC-17 rating from the MPAA; the movie has since been released in both the original NC-17 and an R-edit, but it is simply not the kind of movie where anything is going to seem pleasant. But like most of Matthew McConaughey’s work at the time, there is something undeniably, oddly compelling about it, which audiences on Amazon Prime Video seem to have picked up on.