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— William Friedkin, Killer Joe, NC-17, 102 minutes

I saw Killer Joe in 1998 when it was an off-Broadway play starring Scott Glenn in the title role, along with some relatively unknown guy named Michael Shannon, who since that time has gained critical acclaim thanks to films like Take Shelter and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

Killer Joe, as I recall, was full of violence, and nudity (mostly by Glenn) and darkly disturbing humor. The play launched the career of playwright Tracy Letts, a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble and a Pulitzer Prize winner for August: Osage County.

Now Killer Joe is on the big screen, directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) with Matthew McConaughey in the role of a quietly threatening cop/murderer-for-hire in Texas whose skill set is desperately needed by morally challenged drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch, limping and covered in purple bruises from assorted beatings delivered by thugs throughout most of the film).

Seems Chris owes $6,000 to his supplier, which doesn’t bode well for his future. Then he finds out that his no-account mother has a life insurance policy worth $50,000, which he parlays into a deal with Killer Joe. To make sure the cash comes through, Joe - who usually requires payment in advance -demands collateral via the sexual favors of Chris’ not-all-there younger sister Dottie (played with airy delicacy by Juno Temple) until payoff time. But Chris’ plans don’t produce the results he hopes for, resulting in a conclusion that isn’t easily forgotten.

Contributing mightily to the authenticity of the film is Thomas Haden Church as Chris’ none-too-bright father, Ansel, and Gina Gershon as Ansel’s slutty wife, Sharla, who’s not as clever as she thinks she is.

Bonus features in the intensely claustrophobic, brutal, sometimes comic, often unsettling and utterly un-glamorous production include a from stage-to-screen featurette, a Q&A with the cast, and an introduction and audio commentary by director Friedkin.

Other recent releases:

Pitch Perfect (PG-13, 112 minutes) is a good-natured musical comedy - obviously influenced by TV’s sensationally successful Glee - about a rivalry between a cappella groups, one of which includes a saucy freshman (Anna Kendrick) who works to lead her eclectic organization to the top of college music competitions.

Total Recall (PG-13, 118 minutes) The original 1990 sci-fi thriller of the same name - with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone - might have been bleak, brutal and stuffed with questionable science, but at least it had Arnold snapping off the occasionally funny one-liner. This version, starring Colin Farrell as a factory worker whose life changes dramatically when he enters a candlelit shop that turns dreams into memories, is bleak, brutal and stuffed with questionable science. But Farrell, often a charismatic actor, exhibits little appeal here, so the film is simply an exercise in futuristic efforts at universal destruction.

Arbitrage (R, 107 minutes) is a simmering thriller, set in a glittering and well-heeled New York, that features Richard Gere as a seeming master of the financial universe whose attempted sale of his dicey hedge fund empire stumbles on an error that forces him to behave badly and turn in desperation to an unlikely source for help.

Liberal Arts (PG-13, 98 minutes) is a slice-of-life drama about Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), who is losing enthusiasm for his admissions counselor job at New York University and his life in general when he’s invited to return to his former college campus to speak at a beloved professor’s retirement dinner. There he meets a smart, attractive and literate 19-year-old sophomore (Elizabeth Olsen) who sees something in him that he thought was long gone. What’s he going to do about that age difference? The story is OK, but it just doesn’t know when to end.

Karen Martin is a Little Rock based writer and critic. E-mail her at

MovieStyle, Pages 39 on 12/21/2012

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