Kicking off the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012 is Killer Joe, legendary director William Friedkin’s first film since 2006’s creepy and vastly underrated horror Bug. And after six years Friedkin has returned with a vengeance, delivering an ultra-violent and darkly funny adaptation of Tracy Letts’ stage-turned-screenplay.
It starts out simple enough as the tale of a young man, Chris, (Emile Hirsch) who along with his father (Thomas Haden Church) hires the eponymous Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother in order to collect the insurance money and pay off some people he owes. But things spiral out of control when issues arise over the money, including being unable to pay Joe in advance who then accepts time with Chris’ sister (Juno Temple) as a retainer.
What could have been a generic violent crime thriller in the wrong hands is actually a chilling, atmospheric and, at times, almost unbearably tense experience. Friedkin is in expert control of tone and rhythm here, lingering on scenes long after most other films would have moved on which gives it an uncomfortable quality. In spite of its often downright hilarious moments, which arise much out of it discomfort as it does the delivery by the actors, this is not what you would call a fun watch. But nevertheless it’s extremely violent and graphic for a reason, only when it needs to be, and therefore walks a fine line very well without falling over into tasteless or exploitative.
The performances are across the board great, from Hirsch’s desperate Chris and Church’s clueless Ansel to Gina’s Gershon’s blasé Sharla and Temple’s diamond-in-the-rough Dottie. But, as the suggests, this is Killer Joe’s film and as him McConaughey has never been better. Bringing to it the real sense of danger and coldness that the role demands, you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do moment-to-moment, whether his reputation is truly justified. For an actor who’s often known as a heartthrob, it’s a pleasantly surprising turn for him to take.
Evoking the likes of Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, the reaction to this film will without a doubt be divisive. Some will abhor its violent tendencies and possibly misogynistic overtones while others will admire the craftsmanship, performances and see the violence as a punctuation of the story rather than being there just for the sake of it. I am undoubtedly closer to the latter side of the fence about this taut, uncompromising film. But whatever you think of it one thing’s for sure – it leaves an impression.
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Killer Joe opens in UK cinemas on June 29th.