Matthew McConaughey's Awesome Journey to the Dark Side

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

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.

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).

But there is a faint extralegal air about this man's cash-business practices, one that seems almost a prerequisite for an outfit designed to capitalize on the fantasies of "bored housewives" and rowdy bachelorettes. Many of the stripper routines seem to play up the sense of the Xquisite club as operating in a legal no man's land: The film opens with Dallas onstage stoking up the crowd by jokingly telling them that he sees a lot of lawbreakers in the house tonight; plenty of other scenes find the dancers shedding their law-enforcement drag. And in Magic Mike, behind the illusion, there is at least some measure of truth. One of the film's (more conventional) takeaway messages is that the mildly transgressive good time onstage is necessarily attended by shady goings-on offstage—chiefly, Ecstasy dealing by Dallas's associates—so it's perhaps best to avoid the whole scene entirely.

A prominent feature of Killer Joe's hell-on-earth Dallas County is the analogous bathed-in-neon chintz of the strip-mall gentleman's club. Unforgiving would barely begin to describe the film's setting, which is choked by power lines and illuminated by nighttime oil-drum fires. In lieu of the typical cash up front, Joe has convinced father Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church) and son Chris (Emile Hirsch) to give up their 12-year-old daughter/kid sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer for his services—to off Ansel's no-good ex-wife, also the mother to both Chris and Dottie. Chris is $6,000 in the red to a drug supplier for cocaine his mother hoovered up behind his back, so the money from Mom's life-insurance policy, of which Dottie is the beneficiary, is meant to save his hide while improving the standard of living of everyone else in on the scheme (including Ansel's current wife, Sharla, played by Gina Gershon).

Certainly there is nothing that's sacred to these people, but they are above all incompetent and dull-witted (Ansel in particular is a pathetic figure, wearing a beard that seems to be recoiling at the sight of his face). Joe stands as the cold, hard embodiment of the anarchic criminal realm the Smith clan unthinkingly inhabit. During a revolting one-on-one between Joe and Dottie—this NC-17 movie is extremely lurid, and perhaps a bit too proud of it—the hit man lays it all on the table, so to speak. He removes the items from his pocket one by one. His handcuffs, his police badge, and his other articles besides clink against the hard kitchen surface he places them down upon. We are thus presented with the familiar tools of the trade, only to realize they are just props, empty signifiers. (Throughout, Joe's signature tic involves nonchalantly flicking the cap off another dangerous pocket item, his Zippo-style lighter, a noise cruelly magnified by the film's sound design.)

In a later scene, a bruised and battered Chris hobbles up to Joe after an encounter with the small-time drug kingpin he's indebted to, Digger (Marc Macaulay). Chris has been kicked around by a couple of thugs, and he tells Joe that Digger also threatened to kill him. "Aren't you supposed to arrest people who commit murder?" Chris asks. "I like Digger," responds Joe with a sinister lightness. The world of Killer Joe is governed not by laws, or any other ties binding family and community, but rather by a profit motive that makes no real effort to hide its moral bankruptcy.

In Killer Joe, then, McConaughey provides a chilling coda to a thoroughly unexpected trilogy of roles in which he walks the alarmingly thin line between law and lawlessness. This cycle offers the sense of an honest-to-goodness reinvention: McConaughey inhabits characters who appear to use their drawling charisma—the very stuff the actor had appeared to coast aimlessly on for so long—as a tool, or even a weapon, as they pace that murky borderland.