By Shane M. Dallmann
“I heard you talkin’ about killing Ma. I think it’s a good idea.” –Dottie
Those of you following my theatre reviews as well as my film reviews have seen quite a bit of Tracy Letts lately. Some time after I saw William Friedkin’s superlative adaptation of BUG, the original stage play was presented as the debut attraction of the Paper Wing’s Gallerie Theatre. And of course, at the time of this writing, you still have two weekends left to see Letts’ epic AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY on the Paper Wing’s main stage (you can find my review elsewhere in my notes).
But I wish I’d been frequenting the Paper Wing back when they staged Letts’ KILLER JOE–I so want to see what they did with that. Thankfully, William Friedkin has once again come to the rescue.
As with the aforementioned Letts efforts, a prospective reviewer should introduce the characters and set up the story with as few details as possible… and as with the aforementioned Letts efforts, it’s a balancing act to do so with KILLER JOE. We’re in a particularly sleazy area of Texas. Young Chris (Emile Hirsch, no longer the virtuous, clean-cut SPEED RACER) is in potentially deadly debt, and he’s been kicked out of his mother’s place–but not before a tempting idea is placed in his head: an idea that he shares with his clueless father (Thomas Haden Church) as the film begins. Seems that the estranged mother has a huge life insurance policy, and Chris’s little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) has been named as the sole beneficiary. And Dottie’s sharing a white trash nightmare with Dad and his new, brazenly slutty wife (Gina Gershon). How to cash in? Come to an arrangement with hitman (and law officer) Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).
Things don’t go terribly well. They go… well… terribly.
Letts is at his caustic best with an unforgettable collection of morally bankrupt characters. For some, crime has paid handsomely and they see no reason to consider right versus wrong. Some are desperate enough to believe that there’s no other way out of their problems. Some simply don’t know any better and go along with what people tell them to do. And some were simply raised with no other example whatsoever. Temple, as Dottie, is especially heartbreaking in this regard, and the suggestion that big brother Chris genuinely loves her makes it all the more wrenching. But the entire cast, of course, deserves high praise–and considering what their director PUT them through, they deserve high respect on TOP of that.
I don’t know William Friedkin personally, but I’ve known people who’ve worked with him and I’ve heard the stories. “Out and out psychological whaling to get the performance he needed,” said Steve James… and that was for a pair of TV movies! Well, whatever he does still works today–his two Letts adaptations are among his most powerful achievements. And yes, I just so happened to re-watch THE EXORCIST not too long ago.
I originally wanted to get through this review without making any references to THE EXORCIST (because virtually EVERY Friedkin film is hyped by said invocation), but the director left me little choice this time around. We all know the use to which Friedkin put a crucifix in that film. KILLER JOE also features the sudden appearance of a crucifix–nothing is done WITH it, but it heightens the appropriate sense of foreboding immeasurably when it shows up. The sequence couldn’t possibly have played the way it did on stage–this is part of the way Friedkin successfully opens KILLER JOE up from its origins–had you told me this was an original screenplay (Letts, of course, did the adaptation), I would have believed it.
And finally, there’s the matter of the richly deserved NC-17 rating. Perhaps you’ve heard that KILLER JOE contains abundant nudity. It does. Perhaps you’ve heard about the bloody, bone-crunching violence. It’s there. But that’s not why this got the NC-17. THAT stems from a truly shocking and jaw-dropping sequence of abuse and degradation made no less bearable by the simple fact that both parties involved are equally despicable. I’ve got plenty of reasons NOT to go into detail here, but I can’t resist making a suggestion that only my most seasoned readers are going to understand: this is the sort of thing that one might dream up if he were watching LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET while enjoying a KFC dinner. I’m not saying that Tracy Letts DID this, mind you, but I can’t prove that he DIDN’T, either…
From that point, the tension remains relentless right up to the point where the end titles pop in–a moment which almost caused me to shout out loud (oh, I was heard, fear not) and which had the people behind me gasping and laughing for at least two continuous minutes.
So it’s another “brace yourself” movie not recommended to those who even have to wonder about it–and another lethal combination of a shockingly gifted playwright and one of the most ferocious film directors still working today.
Your move. (Oh, and if you do go, could you please try to identify the kung-fu movie Dottie’s watching early in the film? And listen for the TV host announcing HORROR HOTEL with Christopher Lee while you’re at it!)