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Simon Read [Film Festival 06.26.12] comedy thriller crime

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The opening film of EIFF 2012, William Friedkin's Killer Joe is a provocatively entertaining, darkly comic thriller starring Matthew McConaughey as the eponymous police detective and part-time hitman, hired by a family of trailer trash simpletons who have their eyes set on a hefty insurance policy held by former family member for whom sympathy is far outweighed by green eyes and cocaine debts. While it's an enjoyable and twisted ride I'll have to concede right off the bat that it won't be to everyone's tastes, but for my money the atmosphere, performances and sheer balls to the wall craziness make this a must see for anyone who likes a brutal film that's worth talking about.

On a dark and stormy night outside Dallas, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) returns to the trailer home of his alcoholic father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and together they hit a local strip joint for some beers where Chris explains not only his mounting debt and shattered relationships, but also a plan to hire a hitman to bump off the ex-wife and mother who abandoned them years previously. At first Ansel is skeptical, claiming ownership of the intended victim on grounds that, "I found her, she's my ex-wife." But a few brews and the mention of a $50,000 life-insurance policy soon have him on-board and looking for the quick fix, which soon arrives in the form of mysterious cowboy figure Joe, a cool as can be, spurred and booted stranger who's rules are simple: money first, hit later. Naturally the Smith clan don't have access to his significant fee, so an inventive retainer is arranged instead. Step-up Dottie; Chris's emotionally fractured younger sister, who takes a liking to Joe's smooth exterior and chiseled good looks, but can't quite see beyond to his inner psychopathy and sexual desires. Needless to say, from here on in things hardly go according to plan.

The first significant thing to say about Killer Joe is that it's a film steeped in atmosphere. When there aren't thunderous lightening storms dominating the skyline of the trailer park, there are scorching heatwaves blasting the highways and scrubland surrounding the setting. Our characters move naturally in such an environment, whether tossing back beers and casually ingesting drugs, or engaging in domestic violence or slobbering over friend chicken. Friedkin has crafted a film that bleeds seediness and for me that's half the charm; it's a perfect little world for our characters to inhabit, but not one I'd like to visit for more than an afternoon. Performances are strong across the board too; Church's Ansel is an affable but monumentally stupid hick with a tendency to take everything at face value and let anything else fly over his beer soaked head, while Hirsch's Chris is a weasel of the highest order, desperate to clear his name with local bikers and their gang leader Digger, whom he owes cash for a coke deal gone wrong. Dottie (played by Juno Temple) is not as innocent as she may seem, even although on the surface she appears as nothing but naivety gift wrapped in virginity. Gina Girshon plays Ansel's live in girlfriend who works at a local pizza place and keeps the boys in beer money, but she's got a mean temper on her and plans of her own.

The real scene stealer here is McConaughey though, playing a character worlds away from his usual plastic Hollywood leading men from rom-coms best forgotten. His Joe is part bent cop, good old boy, suave badass and (South) American Psycho. At first we assume he's a man with a job to do and little patience for his mumbling clients, but when things come to a head his true colours begin to show and the facade cracks, and it ain't pretty. The narrative, not unlike Joe's madness, starts off slow and brooding and winds up racing along towards a bloody climax much too much of which is shown in the spoiler ridden trailer, and which left most of the audience pretty much dumbstruck. I've read a few reviews online which criticize the film for hitting some targets dead-on (atmosphere in spades for one) but frustrating viewers in terms of writing and inconsistency in pace, but Killer Joe is not a normal film for normal folks (just look who we're dealing with in terms of characters) and I think complaints in this regard largely miss the whole point, it's a fun ride, not a social-realist drama.

Kicking the festival off with style and controversy is a rarity these last few years for the EIFF, and it's just great to have something that's going to get the crowd talking, whether favorably or not. Killer Joe is a film not without problems but it is one well worth seeking out, although just make sure your dinner plans don't include KFC afterwards.

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