Killer Joe packs a punch at Edinburgh International Film Festival

By Ross Maclean

William Friedkin, director of such classics as The Exorcist and The French Connection, returns with Killer Joe, a trailer park noir with an undercurrent darker than a Texan oilfield. With masterful elements of black comedy weaved in amongst the grit, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Think of it as the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, if blood was substituted for fryer oil.

Chris (Emile Hirsch) hatches a scheme to hire lawman-turned-assassin ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to help him collect on his mother’s life insurance policy. Aided and abetted by his dim-witted father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his brash wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), things head south when Joe requests David’s naively spacey sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral.

Based on a play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote Friedkin’s last film, Bug, there’s a definite stagey feeling to the film with most of it taking place within the run-down confines of the family’s trailer park home. With no time wasted on spectacular set pieces and featuring only the briefest of action scenes, it allows for the development of some of recent cinema’s most compellingly grubby characters. The crackling script is bursting with long dialogue scenes which give each character room to develop beyond mere low income stereotypes.

In particular, McConaughey’s Joe is a fascinating figure. Clad in iconic leather gloves and Stetson, with a coolly predatory demeanour, this is a character who always seems in control. Exerting a brooding magnetism over the other characters, which contrasts sharply with his character’s vices, you're never quite sure just what his intentions are. McConaughey has never been better and it’s wonderful to see him taking divisive roles like this.

There’s not a turn out of place in the entire film. Every actor completely inhabits their role and seems entirely willing to dive right in no matter how they might appear. Nudity from almost all concerned runs throughout the film and Gina Gershon makes a particularly fearless first appearance. Haden Church’s Ansel gets most of juiciest comic lines, delivered with deadpan relish, although Juno Temple makes a huge impact with a performance that is equal parts kooky and tragic.

While they may not be folk you would rush to spend time with, there’s something in the way the inhabitants of the film are written – as well as what befalls them throughout the film – that inspires a begrudging sympathy. These are people on the fringes of society and of the law but you can’t help but fall for them in spite of their malevolence.

As Joe becomes a de facto part of the family and the central plan falls apart, so does any semblance of restraint on Friedkin’s behalf. The ominous tone which prevails for most of the film gives way to wall-to-wall depravity by the time of the final act and it is deliriously wicked stuff. While some might baulk at just how violent things get, and there’s no denying the film does lapse into leering at times, it never seems out of place when the whole endeavour thrives on presenting grime and greedy desperation.

Revelling in lingering scenes of uncomfortable tension-building, the real joy lies in how deftly the film dances between light and shade. One minute you’ll be close to looking away at a scene involving KFC that’s enough to make the Colonel’s glasses steam up, before laughing uncomfortably as it flits back to a semblance of near-parodic normality in a heartbeat.

Friedkin seems like he’s having enormous fun playing with our perceptions and toying with the audience. There’s a gaping void in the place where convention dictates typical movie morality should be and it never falls down on one side or another when it comes to judgement. This is a director who knows there’s darkness in all of us and can’t wait to remind us of it at every opportunity.

This is a vibrant, well paced piece of work from a director who really knows what he’s doing. While it might not have the timeless glacial resonance as The Exorcist, it’s a film that’s destined to live long in the memory – not least the next time you contemplate that bargain bucket of chicken after a few beers.

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