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TIFF: 'Killer Joe' is a delectably gruesome thriller featuring Matthew McConaughey at his creepiest

Killer Joe ***1/2

This Southern, trailer park spin on the film noir formula is off-putting in the most delectable way. Oscar-winning master of suspense William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) takes a script by Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts and gives second life to this gruesome black comedy about betrayal, sex, drugs and desperation.

Set in what’s likely the bleakest corners of Dallas, Texas, 22-year-old drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) hatches a plan to off his mother – who has a $50,000 life insurance policy – after he finds out she’s stolen his stash. He reeks of dirty desperation in plotting to pay off his $6,000 debt, and finds (surprisingly!) consenting partners in crime in his dopey dad (Thomas Haden Church), sexually precocious sister (Juno Temple) and trampy father's girlfriend (Gina Gershon, consistently brilliant). Together, the ruthless family reaches out to Killer Joe (a frankly unexpected turn for Matthew McConaughey), a crooked cop moonlighting as a contract killer.

Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple in 'Killer Joe'

The set-up alone is your worst nightmare of what life in a white bread trailer home could be – and then things begin to take a turn for the worse. Killer Joe is an exposé of disturbingly bawdy, Bible Belt behaviour set in the area’s diners, strip clubs, seedy parking lots and panties-optional mobile homes. Plot twists and turns keep the story moving swiftly forward, and the suspense builds as you realize these characters were never taught to develop something akin to a moral compass.

Friedkin is a veteran at casting and directing actors, and this film is the perfect showcase for those sharp instincts. Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple and – wait for it – Matthew McConaughey all deliver stellar performances that go from angry to libidinous to campy to eerie. Some scenes are hard to stomach, namely those involving canned food and a KFC chicken chunk (utterly vile)!

From its opening scene on, Friedkin’s film repeatedly oversteps the boundaries of good taste, and it’s a sheer pleasure to watch. Killer Joe is a razor-sharp, transgressive thriller with lots of dark humour…and some unsettling bush.

Saturday, September 17 | Visa Screening Room (Elgin) 9:00pm
Toronto International Film Festival | Until September 18 | tiff.net


From left to right: Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple in 'Killer Joe'