Matthew McConaughey's Awesome Journey to the Dark Side

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In the best year of his career, the once-vapid-seeming actor has played three characters relying on charisma to live on the edge of the law.

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McConaughey in Bernie, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe.

Before we even fully glimpse the title character of Killer Joe, a brutal black-comic noir that opens in limited release today, we get a rundown of his lethal getup. A series of close-ups display his barbed brownish boots, highway-patrol shades, and corpse-stiff cowboy hat. The crisp, clean outfit is in stark contrast to the film's down-at-heel trailer-park milieu, where everyone's clothes are faded, soiled, or otherwise unraveling. Joe, a Dallas County detective with a lucrative murder-for-hire sideline, sheds a rather harsh light on the rottenness all around him. "His eyes hurt," one character keeps saying.

'Killer Joe' provides a chilling coda to a trilogy of roles in which he walks the alarmingly thin line between law and lawlessness.

To say the least, this is not the type of movie that has been typically associated with Matthew McConaughey, who plays Joe with mesmerizing death-mask blankness. Since breaking through in 1993's Dazed and Confused as hang-about high-school graduate David Wooderson, McConaughey has largely plied his easy charm in rom-coms of no particular distinction. But the new film, directed by William Friedkin from Tracy Letts's adaptation of his own play (the two previously worked together on 2006's Bug), caps a banner year for the actor, now indulging in a little character-actor free jazz at 42. He's reviving comparisons to the late, great Paul Newman—not many of those have come his way since his big-screen breakout nearly two decades ago.

This summer alone, McConaughey has appeared in two films that would look excellent at the top of any résumé: the true-crime oddity Bernie, directed by Dazed's Richard Linklater, and the male-stripper saga Magic Mike, helmed by another noted American eclecticist, Steven Soderbergh. Killer Joe gives viewers somewhat leaner scraps to chew on than either Bernie or Magic Mike, but McConaughey's work in these three films is nonetheless remarkably of a piece. In the consecutive roles, he has played consummate professionals operating in zones of legal uncertainty. Perhaps it's no accident: These movies come on the heels of last year's The Lincoln Lawyer, a satisfying but down-the-line legal thriller toplined by McConaughey, and the actor himself happens to be a former law student (according to a recent Times profile by Dennis Lim).

Bernie puts the legal business front and center.The film tells a story based on a 1998 Texas Monthly article, interspersed with documentary-aping "interviews," about a beloved town mortician and community-theater star Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who shocked everyone in his native Carthage, Texas, by befriending the town's least popular resident, wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). He also ended up shooting her dead, hiding the body in the garage freezer and coming up with a variety of excuses to explain away her absence. Linklater parades forth the case's seemingly irreconcilable particulars without veering too far into caricature.

McConaughey plays Danny Buck Davidson, the local district attorney—his boots propped up on his desk, his sleepily certain eyes veiled by tinted frames—dead set on locking Bernie up, even as the townsfolk plead with him to take it easy on the murderer. The DA doesn't take their advice. If anything, the beseeching voices only seem to drive him to sharpen his courtroom attacks. As Danny Buck, McConaughey represents the law, but in a brash, close-to-the-letter way that throws into relief that those codified rules might not be serving the interests of an especially forgiving community—a troubling suggestion, to say the least.

Taking place in a different world altogether (though one on a similar real-life latitude), Magic Mike revolves around the raunchy crowd-pleasing at a strip-mall Chippendales, where club owner Dallas (McConaughey) is the outrageous master of ceremonies, introducing routines by performing little sideshow riffs of his own. (In a choice bit, he sings a goodbye country song to the "ladies of Tampa.") The portrayal often feels like the actor's reflection on his own status as a entertainer: He can be heard uttering a famous Wooderson catchphrase—"All right, all right, all right"—and seen toting around a pair of bongos (famously, the star's naked wee-hours drumming precipitated his 1999 arrest for marijuana possession and resisting transportation).

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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