Crazy Cops in Toronto: McConaughey and Harrelson Go Splendidly Sicko

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Woody Harrelson in Rampart

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Killer Joe makes a point of going postal from the start — 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) — then gets defiantly bonkers. In hock to a drug lord, Chris needs money quick and stumbles on to 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). Chris has heard of Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer. Joe's nonnegotiable price is $25,000, but in its stead he might take the slutty, virginal Dottie as a kind of carnal collateral. That's a proposition 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'd achieve in 2007 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. This 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 rubble.

Besides, Killer Joe serves as a sort of bookend, ornamented with gargoyles, to two important films early in Friedkin's 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.

One way for a star actor to expand his range is to play a riff on his basic character in a strategically different context. McConaughey has lately given 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. He played that card smartly in The Lincoln Lawyer; here, his Joe 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 he speaks to his prospective clients about a murder as he would to a pretty girl about dinner and a movie. Of the five characters in Killer Joe he's the sickest and the most comfortable in his role: whispering master to the family's wailing, pathetic slaves. A McConaughey male, in any movie, always thinks he should be on top.

Toronto 2011 has proved to be a cool showcase for genuine movie stars either in full strut (Brad Pitt in Moneyball) or locating rich subtleties (George Clooney in The Descendants). McConaughey is no less impressive and quite a bit bolder, doing pro-bono work in this indie-movie equivalent of an off-off-Broadway play. I'm told that Killer Joe, which had its world premiere a week ago at the Venice Film Festival, is close to finding a U.S. distributor. McConaughey's 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 shot. The dimpled demon lover proves he can be just as seductive playing Texas's creepiest, craziest cop.

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