Killer Joe Review

Rating (out of 5)
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Voltage Pictures, Worldview Entertainment
William Friedkin (director)
Matthew McConnaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church, Gina Gershon
Running time

On just its first day, the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival has swept away some of the sour memories of last year’s lambasted damp squib of an event. A strong whiff of renewed optimism permeated the air last night generated by a bold and controversial opening film followed by a swish party in the grandeur of the Royal Museum.

It’s been a good kick-start to proceedings aided by the return of a high profile red carpet event with a modicum of celebrity talent in tow. Maverick director William Friedkin, better known for that car chase in The French Connection and demonically possessed horror classic The Exorcist has already praised Edinburgh for showing his latest opus Killer Joe uncut.

It feels like an old-fashioned B movie that’s been rediscovered from some long lost archive, now re-appraised as a daring 1970’s classic (although set in present day) as if from a time when directors made films their own way and when men in films were men.

It’s a stylish and nihilistic blackly comic thriller - by turns gripping, hilarious and at times challenging to watch. The film hasn’t been so lucky in the States where it can’t be shown in this form without an NC-17 rating, a box office death sentence.

Poverty as we all know sucks and it sucks big time for the run down Texan trailer trash inhabiting the world of Tracy Letts original stageplay. It’s the kind of poverty leading to the pursuit of incomprehensibly daft measures, not taken lightly but forced through by desperation. 

Juno Temple plays the adolescent Dottie, still emerging from a kind of fairytale innocence whilst crossing over into the brutal reality of an adulthood going nowhere fast. Her older brother Chris (Emile Hirsch) watches out for her but does so as incompetently and selfishly as their father Ansel, the brilliantly world-weary Thomas Haden Church, henpecked by his cheating second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon).

This motley foul-mouthed bunch of hand-to-mouth survivors decide they’d all be better off without their mutually hated elderly mother along and the financial gain her demise should precipitate. So these simpletons (but not without likeability or charm) decide to hire a reputable contract killer and split the proceeds.

Enter the titular Joe (Matthew McConaughey) like a dark angel – a smooth operator whose initial surface charm and riveting presence belies the dead eyes he will swiftly fixate lustfully on both his underage quarry and a large tax free pay check.

This is Matthew McConaughey’s film. His finest performance to date he steals every scene exuding both his trademark charm but also predatory threat and controlling menace. He’s a cop moonlighting as a hitman and although we never really see him at his day job we get the impression he’s pretty good at both – by turns a pleasant and agreeable fellow but a psychopath by necessity should the need arise.

His performance, presence and behaviour suggested hints of Dennis Hopper’s memorable turn in Blue Velvet and its seems no coincidence much of the film had many Lynchian qualities.

This is a bloody and dark variation on Lolita. It’s deviant, both erotic and wince inducing and thrown into this mix are danger filled Tarantino-esque dialogue set pieces of nail biting tension and throwaway humour.

It’s brave and exploitative and the feminists might not enjoy yet more onscreen graphic misogyny, the kind Argento might fashion. It’s a very guilty pleasure indeed, a comic book heightened reality of one half of the American Dream, the one that’s going rapidly down in flames.

Video: William Friedkin and Gina Gershon at the red carpet Gala in Edinburgh

Killer Joe announced as opening film