Before I tell you anything else, you should know that this is the kind of movie where the bad guy informs a potential victim of his plan to cut off of that person's face. When the potential victim fails to take this threat seriously, the bad guy rephrases the question: "Do you want me to wear your face?" And then it gets worse. As in brutally violent and sexually humiliating. That kind of worse. People-getting-bludgeoned-with-canned-food worse. Terrible, terrible acts are committed with pieces of fried chicken. So ask yourself now if you want a movie to cut off your face, because figuratively speaking, this one will do that. It will wear your face.
The bad guy, the Joe of the title, is Matthew McConaughey. Maybe you haven't been paying close enough attention to him lately. Something has changed. Is this change due to his realization that he finally has all the money he needs and no longer has to pretend that he enjoys playing the smarmy rake in garbage-y rom-coms like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Wedding Planner or Failure to Launch? Was he not finding the right script for that Fool's Gold sequel? Or maybe he re-watched his own impressive film debut in 1994's Dazed and Confused and wondered, aloud, staring into the Hollywood night, "What happened to me after that?"
Whatever happened, the beneficiaries are audiences. We get to see the Matthew McConaughey we want, not the one we've deserved by propping up all the other terrible star vehicles he's chosen for himself. Slyly cool in The Lincoln Lawyer, seen-it-all but still shockable in Bernie, chilly, ruthless and sexually charged in Magic Mike. This is the character actor he would have always been if his damn pretty face hadn't gotten in the way.
Joe, a Dallas detective and contract murderer, is hired by Chris (Emile Hirsch) to kill his despicable off-screen mother for her life insurance money. Chris needs the cash to get out of debt to drug dealers. His father Ansel (a hilariously dead-inside Thomas Haden Church) agrees to this plan. So does Ansel's new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon, giving one of the most unflinching, go-for-broke performances of the past several years). As collateral, they've offered Joe their teenage daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), mostly because he demands it. And yes, it's easier to take this film as the brutal black comedy it is when everyone is so hateful and gross. At least until the finale, that is, when it goes off the rails and decides it wants you to laugh and feel sick inside at the same time. That's a tough one to pull off.
But if anyone can do that, it's William Friedkin. The legendary director (The Exorcist, The French Connection, Cruising) might be advancing in years -- he's in his 70s now -- but seemingly has no plans to stop pushing the edge of what's acceptable to show on screen. Assisting him and his fearless cast in this task is writer Tracy Letts, on whose stage play it's all based (he also wrote their last collaboration, the deranged psychological drama Bug, and the upcoming film adaptation of his own play, August: Osage County).
And what it amounts to in the end is an outrageous bit of pulp fiction that'll make you wince, gasp, laugh at things you know you shouldn't, overlook horrible crimes committed by the charismatic McConaughey, commiserate with the equally culpable Church, sit slack-jawed in awe of Gershon and never want to go to Texas or eat fried chicken ever again.