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Magic Matthew: McConaughey's Journey From Slacker to Darkness

We are in the ragged fringe of Dallas, where Killer Joe is a cop in his spare time, when he’s not killing people. We discover a white trash family out of Sam Shepard or Jim Thompson, but so cutesy-awful they might be ready for Hee Haw. There’s the father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), his son, Chris (Emile Hirsch), and his daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). In a listless way, they wonder about killing the first wife and mother to the kids—for the insurance money, which is coming to Dottie. I can’t see why they don’t do this deed themselves, for they seem casual and callous enough. Instead they call for Killer Joe—after all, his name is in the title.

Joe wears laundered black and a crisp Stetson. He has a gun, and a badge, but never seems obliged to do police work. He kills people by contract, and reckons he can off Mom for $25,000. He drawls, but he is soft-spoken and polite, and the cooler he becomes the more frightening he is. For all the trailer-trash authenticity and the soupy Texan-ness of the film, Joe seems like an angel of death out of legend. Of course, as a professional, he wants his $25,000 up front. But the family can’t raise that kind of money. So the deal is off until Joe sees Dottie and says he’ll take her as a retainer. As in, own her. Joe, by the way, is played by Matthew McConaughey.

For years I wasn’t sure how to spell “Matthew McConaughey”. In my arrogance, I assumed the need would not arise. No one could deny how handsome he was, though often his silent-movie prettiness seemed overwhelming and at odds with his heroic stature and his Texan drawl. He was tall and strong; he had curling brown hair, intense eyes … the more I describe him, the harder it is to say why I didn’t like him. Was it that his sculpted face sometimes suggested that it might be made of candy, instead of rock? Was his cheerfulness too bland compared with the ingrowing worry or doubt to be seen and felt in, say, Matt Damon, more or less a contemporary? Was he so pleased with himself as to warn us off?

At first, I was in a minority. McConaughey was one of those people for whom extraordinary stardom was predicted. Born in Uvalde, Texas in 1969, he graduated from the radio, film, and television program at the University of Texas at Austin, and as one of the many kids who would hang out in that city, he caught the eye of Richard Linklater, who cast him and then let his slacker-womanizer part build in Dazed and Confused. He was noticed and quickly promoted to lead parts: as a sheriff in John Sayles’ Lone Star, and as the idealistic young lawyer defending Samuel Jackson and getting involved with Sandra Bullock in A Time to Kill.

Great things were forecast, but McConaughey never quite settled as a dominating figure: He was Jodie Foster’s love interest in Contact; he was in Amistad, if you can remember his role; he did adventure films—U-571 and Sahara; he was good in the unnoticed Frailty; and he was a consort in romantic comedies, with Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner and Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. He was a noble football coach in We Are Marshall. But the promise had slipped away. He seemed like a make-weight in movie packaging.

But something has happened: He is married to a long-time partner; he has accepted being 40; he has become leaner; and he has found some instinct about going for darkness. In the space of twelve months, he will be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike as the sleazy impresario of a strip club; he is going to be a fugitive in Jeff Nichols’ Mud (Nichols’ last film was Take Shelter); he is part of the wildness of The Paperboy; and in Killer Joe, he has reminded us of the screen’s fondness for suave monsters. McConaughey is a new man, nasty but compelling, casting a spell and spellable. You want to hear his talk and see more of his wicked mind at work.

All you have to do to prove this to yourself is to find the courage or the numbness to sit through Killer Joe, adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play and directed by William Friedkin (the director once of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and then a long run of diminished sensations). Some critics speak of Killer Joe as Friedkin’s comeback—he is nearly 77, and still thrilled to be in charge of an NC-17 picture. What justifies that rating? It’s not just the everyday depravity of the character or the adolescent tensing up before every outrage—this could be a film made by a 25-year-old, and it’s a measure of our time that the veteran Friedkin and his slick skills are pretending to be a flashy kid.

That’s why Gina Gershon walks around the house in just a T-shirt that does nothing to hide her dense pubic bush. No, it’s not a plot point or a sign of approaching sex. It’s just there, in our face, and all it signals for Ms. Gershon is that sooner or later her face will be beaten to picturesque pulp. Emile Hirsch takes a beating, too, but that is training for his demise—and here comes a spoiler in every sense of the word. Before we are done, Joe has picked up a loaded can of soup or stew (family size) and used it as a club to beat on Chris’s head. I lost count of how many times, but even if your eyes won’t look, you can hear the thud of every impact. By then, Killer Joe has given up the ghost of narrative interest. The ending is feeble and slack; it’s just a way of getting an odious film off the screen. Nevertheless, McConaughey has established himself in the way Richard Widmark did in Kiss of Death. Here is a spellbinding harbinger of evil, a new kind of killer. It’s what we want, I suppose: a terrible sight where you can’t stop looking or loathing yourself for being there.