Black comedy Killer Joe shows Matthew McConaughey can act

Still from Killer Joe

Rom-com regular McConaughey reveals his flair for Southern Gothic in this wickedly funny thriller

LAST UPDATED AT 08:03 ON Fri 29 Jun 2012

What you need to know
Part crime thriller, part black comedy, Killer Joe is directed by Hollywood veteran William Friedkin, best known for his work on The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). The script is adapted from a play by Pulitzer-Prize winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County).

The film centres on a young drug dealer with debts who decides to hire a hit-man to kill his mother, so he can collect on the life insurance. The killer agrees but demands to sleep with the man's younger sister as collateral.

Matthew McConaughey, better know for romantic comedies, stars as the hired killer Joe Cooper.  Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) stars as the hapless drug dealer Chris. Hayden Church (Sideways) plays Chris's father, and Gina Gershon (Showgirls) his stepmother. Juno Temple (Atonement, Dirty Girl) plays Chris's younger sister Dottie.  

What the critics like
Matthew McConaughey used to be the go-to guy for don't-go-to romantic comedies, says Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph, but lately he has discovered "a flair for Southern Gothic". He made waves at Cannes in The Paperboy and Mud, but they were mere ripples compared to "the froth and spume of his lead performance" here. The ending is positively Jacobean.

McConaughey gives the film its Mephistophelean pull, says Ian Nathan in Empire Magazine. His line-delivery is "lacquered with honeyed menace" and he summons a dread-like gravity. Killer Joe is "a vilely hilarious stride along his quest to prove he is more than the jutting prow of Kate Hudson rom-coms".

Friedkin's film is full-frontal in every sense, says Catherine Shoard in The Guardian. It's "an unabashed pulp romp stuffed with ugly acts and primal screams". Letts's screenplay combines watertight plotting with the moral framework of a fairy tale, and the grisly climax feels like Greek tragedy. "The key to its brilliance, though, is its pace and humour".

Letts's tangy writing is the star here, says Guy Lodge in Time Out. Or perhaps the honour should go to Temple. "As a guileless baby-doll turned ravenous Lolita, the 23-year-old Brit is the standout among an already sparky ensemble."

What the critics don't like
Marrying a schlocky pulp tone to a family Greek tragedy, Killer Joe is defiantly not to everyone's taste, says Emma Dibdin on Digital Spy. "Your enjoyment of Killer Joe will depend chiefly on how willing you are to give yourself over to Friedkin's tone of cheerful amorality."

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