It's official - Matthew McConaughey is a creep. In a purely screen-based sense, he gives far better slime than he ever did slush (remember Ghosts of Girlfriends Past? If not, consider yourself profoundly fortunate) and if his current slate is anything to go by, he knows it.
He's following up his compellingly oily turn in last year's The Lincoln Lawyer with a pair of sleazy roles in what can only be described as "redneck-sploitation" flicks. Later this year, Lee Daniels's divisive Cannes contender The Paperboy will likely cement McConaughey's creep credentials, but for now he's the titular hitman in William Friedkin's lurid, lascivious new thriller.
Killer Joe reunites Friedkin with playwright and scriptwriter Tracy Letts, who adapted his own off-Broadway play Bug for the helmer's paranoid 2006 outing with Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd. There's much of the same sweaty, hothouse atmosphere of dread here, with an already-wonky situation spinning rapidly out of control, but in place of Shannon's simmering intensity there's McConaughey's soft-spoken, cool-blooded variant.
After befriending Joe, young ne'er-do-well Chris (Emile Hirsch) conspires with his father (Thomas Haden Church) to kill his divorced mother for the life insurance money. If you're thinking this already sounds like the most dysfunctional family committed to film since the Skywalkers, you ain't heard nothing yet. When Chris isn't able to cough up enough dough to cover Joe's fee, they arrange a "retainer" in the form of the family's nubile young daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), with whom Joe has developed an instant fascination. Deeply discomfiting, sporadically legal and increasingly violent hijinks ensue.
Your enjoyment of Killer Joe will depend chiefly on how willing you are to give yourself over to Friedkin's tone of cheerful amorality. He holds his characters at arm's length to an extent that's both a relief (given what they get up to) and a hindrance (given how little you ultimately care for any of them) - it's arguably a problem when the most likeable character in any film is a drug addict conspiring to kill his own mum. There's a coal-black vacuum at the centre of every single person here, none more so than Temple's Dottie, who begins and ends the film clad in virginal white but does plenty in between to undermine its symbolism.
Temple is mesmerisingly good, segueing from little girl lost to stone-cold psycho in training and back without missing a beat. "So, how're you gonna kill my momma?" she asks Joe blithely over a candlelit casserole dinner, moments after a tellingly specific emotional breakdown. Her first scene with McConaughey is the film's most charged, insofar as it establishes their strangely fluid power dynamic: he is seductive, sympathetic, but she's no shrinking violet and tells a story about her early childhood that explains everything about her without really explaining it at all.
There's the occasional hint of Dennis Hopper's Blue Velvet turn in McConaughey's performance, but he plays every beat at such a deliberately low pitch that his eventual explosion - in the film's hysterical, manic final moments - reverberates all the more.
Marrying a schlocky pulp tone with a story of family dissolution on the level of Greek tragedy, Friedkin's latest is more than worth the six-year wait. Taking an irreverent kind of pleasure in its own nastiness and the depth of its characters' depravity, Killer Joe is emphatically not to everyone's taste, but it is among the purest cinematic experiences you'll have this year. It will also ensure that you never, ever look at fried chicken in quite the same way again.