Edinburgh International Film Festival

Killer Joe (2011)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsche, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church

Directed by: William Friedkin

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe

‘One critic described it as a black hole comedy.’ So says William Friedkin of his latest film, which opens the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Based on a play by Tracy Letts that debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Killer Joe is a comedy/horror/thriller so dark it could indeed swallow spacecraft whole.

The eponymous Joe is, as his name suggests, a contract killer, hired by hapless, debt-ridden loser Chris (Emile Hirsch, looking like a younger, thinner version of Jack Black) to kill his mother in return for a hefty insurance payout. There is, of course, a catch: Chris and his thick-as-two-short-redneck-planks father Ansell (Thomas Haden Church) can’t raise the money to pay Joe in advance, so instead he takes a ‘retainer’, in the form of Chris’s babe in the woods sister Dottie (Juno Temple).

And so unfolds one of the most egregiously dark comedies of errors, the funniest of dysfunctional family sagas, the creepiest of odd couple romances and the most disturbing use of fried chicken every to (dis)grace the silver screen.

‘The film deals with the verities,’ Friedkin explains. ‘Life, death, love, sex, redemption, vengeance…’ And certainly Killer Joe seems deliberately timeless, resonant of the great horror/thriller classics of the 1970s, combining a terrible Deliverance-style sense of spiralling out of control into a vortex of pain with the finely-honed tension of Jaws and the gory shock value of The Last House on the Left.

And then there’s Matthew McConaughey. Not being a great fan of romantic comedies, I’ve never been a great fan of McConaughey either. Now I’m wondering why he’s wasted so many years paddling in the rom-com shallows when he’s so clearly capable of striking out into the dramatic depths like a vicious Great White Shark. While the supporting cast are tremendous (particularly Gina Gershon as Ansell’s scheming white trash wife Sharla), this is McConaughey’s film, and his performance is simply mesmerising. The temperature drops a good ten degrees every time he appears on screen, his chillingly cool demeanour belying a terrible propensity for ruthless violence, yet also masking a weird, childlike adherence to the power of love and purity.

Visceral, shocking, horribly funny and definitely not for the faint-hearted (or the weak of stomach), Killer Joe marks a triumphant return to form for The Exorcist director responsible for so many sleepless nights. And while Killer Joe may not have you waking in a cold seat at 3am, questioning your belief in God and the Devil, it will certainly lodge itself uncomfortably in your brain for a good long time. Plus you’ll never look at KFC the same way again...

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