Killer Joe: Matthew McConaughey as the Creepiest Cop in Texas

Still a prime seducer, the star of Hollywood rom-coms goes weird and wild in William Friedkin's entertainingly outrageous movie

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LD Entertainment

This film image released by LD Entertainment shows Matthew McConaughey in a scene from "Killer Joe."

A policeman with a fearsome rep needs a punchy nickname, especially if his real name is as bland as Joe Cooper. So the Dallas peace officer played by Matthew McConaughey, in his hands-down weirdest movie yet, is Killer Joe Cooper.

A Texas charmer in the role of a deranged, charismatic cop is a nice, bold change for the 42-year-old star who first gained attention and broke hearts in 1993 as the Dazed and Confused dude with the maxim, “You just gotta keep livin’ man, L-I-V-I-N.” The actor has lived large on screen ever since, mainly as the stalwart of insipid rom-coms in which his most acclaimed skill was removing his shirt. This summer he’s in the flesh business again, as male-stripper Channing Tatum’s boss in Steven Soderbergh’s micro-budgeted hit Magic Mike.

(MORE: Steven James Snyder’s review of Magic Mike)

Last year McConaughey took a break from dreck and made a strong dramatic impression as the hotshot attorney in The Lincoln Lawyer. That movie nudged him toward being considered a Serious Actor, a designation he nurtured with roles in three films shown at major festivals: Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy and Todd Nichols’ Mud (both at Cannes this year) and the popular indie comedy Bernie (London Film Festival). The sexual transgressions in The Paperboy make it nearly as much a curio as Killer Joe; and Mud, in which McConaughey plays a renegade befriended by two kids, could earn him an Oscar nomination. But William Friedkin’s Killer Joe could make or break the actor’s rep, because it’s so nuts and he’s so good.

(MORE: Mary Corliss’s Cannes review of The Paperboy)

The film, which Tracy Letts adapted from his 1993 play, is unapologetically in-your-face from Scene One. As Texas rain pelts a trailer, a frantic Chris (Emile Hirsch) begs to be let in, and the door opens to reveal the luxurious crotch of his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon). That’s the first hint of the lurid lunacy on display. In hock to a drug lord, Chris needs money quick and stumbles onto the scheme of hiring a hit man to dispatch his mother, whose $50,000 life insurance policy is supposed to go to his sister Dottie (Juno Temple); Dottie will split the money with Chris. He has heard of Joe Cooper, a Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer, and arranges a meeting. Joe’s nonnegotiable price is $25,000, but in its stead he might take the slutty, virginal Dottie as a kind of carnal collateral. Anyway, that’s the deal that Dottie’s dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) agrees to, rationalizing “that it just might do her some good.”

In his first play, written in his mid-20s, Letts was just starting to scale the craggy comic heights he would reach in 2007 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. This early work, a garish species of Southwestern Gothic, rolls a little too pig-like in the mud of its shock value, as Joe smoothly manipulates members of this backward brood into humiliation, desperation and, in one of the all-time “What!?” climaxes, the forced fellating of a fried chicken leg. (“You’re very good at this,” Joe tells his victim of the moment. “Please moan.”) But, hey, if star actors want to risk their careers in an S-M amorality play, it’s only good manners for audiences to check out the outrage.

(MORE: Corliss on Matthew McConaughey’s rom-com career)

Besides, Killer Joe serves as a bookend, ornamented with gargoyles, to two important films early in Friedkin’s half-century directorial career. One is the 1968 The Birthday Party, a faithful adaptation of Harold Pinter’s play depicting a man (Robert Shaw) being teased and terrorized by visitors who insist it’s his birthday. The other is The French Connection. Forty years after that Oscar-winning drama about a New York City detective (Gene Hackman) obsessed with finding a French heroin dealer, Friedkin revisits the theme of crazed cops, but with the emphasis less on police work than on the splendor of psychopathy. Popeye Doyle, meet Drumstick Cooper.

(MORE: Jay Cocks’ 1971 review of The French Connection by subscribing to TIME)

One way for star actor to expand his range is to play a riff on his basic character in a strategically different context. In The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey gave evidence he could be an avatar of Paul Newman — specifically, Newman as Hud, the rancher dude with acres of Texas charm and not a square foot of scruples. His Joe Cooper is totally bad, and quite possibly mad, but McConaughey employs the same effects as in his romantic comedies. He uses his sotto-voce musicality for threats instead of wooing, but still speaks to his prospective clients about a murder as he would to a pretty girl about dinner and a movie. Of the play’s five characters, Joe is the sickest and the most comfortable in his role: the whispering master to the family’s wailing, pathetic slaves. A McConaughey male, in any movie, always thinks he should be on top.

McConaughey is essentially doing pro-bono work in this indie-movie equivalent of an off-off-Broadway play. His core fans might be shocked to see him in this role — more likely, they’d skip the opportunity — but they ought to give his performance a look. The dimpled demon lover proves he can be just as seductive playing Texas’s creepiest, craziest cop.