By Silvia Aloisi
VENICE (Reuters) - Hollywood heartthrob Matthew McConaughey ditches romantic comedy in modern-day Western "Killer Joe," a film in competition at the Venice festival in which he plays a twisted detective who doubles as a hitman.
In the film, McConaughey is Joe Cooper, a sultry Dallas sheriff who is hired by broke drug dealer Chris to kill his mother for her $50,000 life insurance policy.
With no money for an advance, Chris agrees to offer his younger sister Dottie as sexual collateral in exchange for Joe's services until he receives the insurance money. But the plan does not work out as Chris, played by Emile Hirsch, expected.
Full of dark humor and at times reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," Killer Joe brings veteran U.S. film-maker William Friedkin back to the director's chair after a five-year absence.
Friedkin, best known for "The Exorcist" (1973) and "The French Connection" (1971), for which he won an Oscar, teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts to adapt his piece about the dysfunctional family at the center of the story.
"I understand these characters. I think they are really fascinating, interesting, unusual, I think they are very representative of human nature," Friedkin, 76, told reporters after his film was warmly applauded at a press screening in Venice.
"To me this is a twisted love story, like Cinderella.
"Cinderella is always looking for prince charming and in this story she finds prince charming but he happens to be a hired killer ... All women are looking in some ways for a prince or a princess charming and often you get a hired killer, you know. This is true. I mean I've been married four times."
McConaughey, who was not in Venice, looked very different from his previous roles as the calm, methodical sociopath who becomes increasingly infatuated with Dottie.
"The film was a departure from any project I've ever worked on before," he said in production notes.
Describing his relationship with Dottie and his character's peculiar sense of right and wrong, he said:
"Her family has whored her out and bartered her to this man, who they don't know, as a retainer to kill their mother. Underneath Joe thinks this to be quite despicable.
"For that he wants to help her escape, but he also realizes that he can save himself along the way. Not in a self-righteous way, but in his biblical, Old Testament, fire and brimstone type of way."
Friedkin, who is vying for the top prize at the Venice festival for the first time, said the biggest difference for film makers now compared to when he started was technology, and the ability to create special effects with the keystroke of a computer.
He paid tribute to some of the great directors of the past, citing Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini as his models.
"I am not fit to latch their shoe laces, but their films continue to inspire me, and I hope that someday someone will use the new technology the way the great masters used what was available to them."
As for himself, he was in no hurry to make another film.
"I get to see a lot of scripts, but I don't see much else that I would like to do. I'd rather go sing in Las Vegas or direct operas, which is what I am doing now."
(Reporting by Silvia Aloisi, editing by Paul Casciato)