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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

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Matthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe," in theaters now.
Matthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe," in theaters now.
Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage."
Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage."

Bad guys make for solid movies in "Arbitrage," "Killer Joe"

The mere mention of the names Richard Gere and Matthew McConaughey could once send female audiences swooning for hours. The past half-decade, however, hasn't been kind to the former heartthrobs.

McConaughey learned the hard way that taking his shirt off could only make up for so much rom-com dreck ("Fool's Gold," "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past"), and Gere's latest films have either quietly left theaters without much consequence or never came to them at all.

The handsome duo, though, is having a bit of a renaissance year. The surprising part is that, for the most part, it's by playing against type, portraying characters that dare the audience to like them, especially McConaughey.

We'll get to McConaughey's startlingly unpleasant turn in a moment, but let's start with Gere in "Arbitrage." The sleek, metropolitan thriller stars Gere as Robert Miller, a wildly successful hedge fund CEO in the midst of the sale of his company. He has a happy life with his wife (Susan Sarandon) and grown-up kids (his son is never seen, but his daughter is played by "Another Earth"'s Brit Marling).

Unfortunately, he also has a woman on the side, a fledgling artist named Julie (Laetitia Casta). A night out with Julie goes fatally awry, and Miller suddenly has an even bigger mess to hide with other people's lives involved. Things only get worse when his daughter, who works with Miller at the company, notices some strange numbers on their audit that could halt their sale.

The story, written by Nicholas Jarecki (who is also making his directorial debut), isn't particularly innovative, and as it goes along, "Arbitrage" gets increasingly silly. The goofiness reaches its apex when Tim Roth shows up, swaggering around the set as an NYC detective pulled straight out of a bad "CSI" clone.

Sherlock Holmes, he is not. Miller seems to doing everything possible to get caught, including showing up at parties and offices where he shouldn't be and picking up accomplices right outside the police station.

Thankfully, Gere, the centerpiece of the film, is outstanding, using all of his star-making regal allure but also flipping it on its head. When he has to be, he's effortlessly charismatic and confident, even when his world is self-destructing. He's Edward Lewis from "Pretty Woman" but far more cutthroat, and Gere milks both the charm and the business savagery to great effect.

The rest of the cast is very good as well, especially Sarandon. She doesn't have a ton of scenes in "Arbitrage"'s first half (minus a blatant Zappos plug), but a late argument between her and Gere is a highlight. Also, as improbable as his script gets in places, Jarecki creates some crackling tension, and his shadowy direction sets an intriguing mood. The film doesn't go anywhere particularly new or unique, but it gets there entertainingly enough.

"Arbitrage" may be classified as an adult thriller, but "Killer Joe" truly earns that title. Except maybe the word "adult" should be underlined, in bold and in all caps.

William Friedkin's Southern-fried dark comedy stars McConaughey as the title character, a hit man who works as a police detective on the side. When a bumbling Texas youth (Emile Hirsch) gets in too much debt with a local drug dealer, he, as well as his father (Thomas Haden Church), hire Joe to kill off his mother, whose insurance will cover the debts and allow them to live comfortably. Of course, things go wrong, resulting in a disturbing mess of blood, sex, incestual feelings and fried chicken.

With that description, it's pretty clear that "Killer Joe" earns its NC-17 rating (Gina Gershon's character is introduced privates first). Even so, it's hard to walk into Friedkin's adaptation of Tracy Letts' play totally prepared for the vile, disturbing, dark and sometimes uncomfortably comedic events about to unfold. The whole film plays like a Coen Brothers movie if they had completely lost their sense of decency.

The cast commendably gives the often-unpleasant material their all. Haden Church is humorously dry, and Gershon is compellingly brave as the family's stepmother who may have secrets of her own. Juno Temple (Anne Hathaway's friend in "The Dark Knight Rises") also turns in a fearless performance as Dottie, a relative innocent in the clan who becomes a pawn in their game of murder.

It's McConaughey, though, who stands out in an already standout year. He takes his famous Texan drawl and turns it into something cold, then alluring, then terrifying. He's absolutely captivating, even when you're disgusted by what his sadistic character is doing (which is every few minutes).

"Killer Joe" is a sleazy, lurid tale, and Friedkin presents it with no frills and no glamour. It's gross, funny, appalling, thrilling, disturbing and sensual, often times at all at once. The final act, featuring several brutal beatings and sexual humiliation, is shocking and repulsive, yet watching the noir's gears turn and the family's greasy house of cards slip apart is savagely tense and riveting. It's a crazily unpredictable film with an equally unstable tone, but it's also one that's hard to forget.

"Arbitrage": **1/2

"Killer Joe": ***

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