Edinburgh is abuzz. In front of the city’s beautiful Festival Theatre cameras are flashing as the guests flock in for the opening film of the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival. New Artistic Director Chris Fujiwara introduces himself and his vision to reinvigorate the oldest running film festival in the world.
Introducing Killer Joe, director William Friedkin explains how he hopes not to entertain but challenge. With past effort The Exorcist in mind, it is not hard to imagine what he could accomplish, even at the age of 77. What follows is exactly as promised. An opening film that splits audiences but gets everyone talking, Fujiwara is a brave man to screen Friedkin’s latest as the opening film and it seems to have paid off.
Killer Joe starts as it means to go on. As Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) goes to his father’s trailer in search of somewhere to spend the night he is met with his step-mother’s bare lower half. This swaggering nudity is found throughout the film in a bid to desensitise the viewer for what else is to come. Friedkin’s film is full of images on a shock and awe offensive, and some will be offended. Others will find a strange brilliance in the dark humour found amongst the troubling subject matter.
Chris needs to repay a loan shark $6000 or he will be killed. He initially goes to his father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) for help but his deadbeat dad has nothing to offer. Chris tells of the $50,000 that his mother has and that his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the sole beneficiary. Chris explains to his father how they could employ the Dallas policeman ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in his secondary occupation as a hitman to kill his mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, and split the insurance money. Chris, Ansel, Dottie and Ansel’s new wife Charlotte (Gina Gershon) conspire to employ Joe but cannot afford his fee of $25,000. Joe decides that Dottie will be his ‘retainer’ having taken a fancy to her. Chris and Ansel underestimate the seriousness of Joe and his work and soon enough find themselves well out of their depth.
The film is elevated by the exquisite performances of its players. Church looks as though he has been carved out of stone, a far cry from his character in Sideways. A Flinstonian character, as if someone has partially shaved a bear and put a suit on it, Church plays a coenesque figure of humourous stupidity. Hirsch and Gershon are great in their roles as the cowardly and conniving Chris and the voluptuous, devious Charlotte. Juno Temple puts in a suitably odd and repressed performance of Dottie but stealing the limelight is Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe.
Delivering a performance few knew he was capable of; McConaughey is flawless in displaying the many intricacies of his character. Playing with a lighter that cracks like lighting, Joe peers coolly from behind dark sunglasses. He is a man of morals despite his interest in the young Dottie, he uses his unflappable nature and lures her in with his welcoming charm. He is infatuated by her purity. Get on the wrong side of Joe and another side comes out. McConaughey is frightening as his voice rolls like thunder and violence and dominance take over. He is far more intelligent than all those he comes into contact with, it is as if he has infiltrated the Texan culture and contorts it for his own ends.
The film is dark in subject matter, sex and violence is often misplaced when put side by side and there are certainly some very uncomfortable scenes; I’ll never look at a chicken drumstick the same way. Friedkin manages to surreptitiously inject humour into the darkest moments. It seems an impossible task to make people laugh during such an unsettling story but during the most violent moments and the most invasive, the crowd inside the Festival Theatre was roaring with laughter. The laughs come from all over; the humourous dialogue, the sporadic violence and there is even a special Marx Brothers moment as Charlotte attempts to remove a loose thread from Ansel’s jacket. Friedkin’s film starts slow and builds up to a frenetic climax, in which sits the most bizarre family dinner ever seen.