Friedkin’s Latest re-taps playwright Tracy Letts for a new infusion of Southern darkness
Genre fans know Tracy Letts as the playwright and screenwriter behind William Friedkin’s amazing, insular Bug a few years back, a two-person drama set in a hotel room cocooned in paranoia and insectoid delusion. Friedkin again taps the Pulitzer-winner (for August: Osage County in 1998) for source material, this time going back to Lett’s first play, Killer Joe, which premiered in 1993 onstage with Michael Shannon (the now-seminal character actor, who would later play the twitchy lead in Bug) as Chris Smith, the character played in Friedkin’s film adaptation by Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown, Into the Wild).
When Texan drug dealer Chris Smith (Hirsch) finds himself suddenly and deeply in debt to rather unforgiving criminal parties as a result of his alcoholic mother’s financial transgressions, he and his father (Thomas Haden Church) devise a plan to have his mother (played by stuntwoman Julia Adams) killed for the insurance money. When the hired killer (Matthew McConaughey) – a moonlighting police detective – takes a shine to Smith’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple), she is given to him as a retainer until his fee comes through, prompting a chain of violent and blackly humorous events.
Over the years, stage productions of Killer Joe have courted an impressive stable of indie actors, from Fairuza Balk and Michelle Williams, with wiry screen-scorcher Scott Glenn as the titular assassin. A reading of the play reveals a creepily talkative killer, which perhaps makes Friedkin’s choice of Matthew McConaughey as the lead a fitting one; the hiatus from rom-coms could do him some good, and if McConaughey shines at anything, it’s being a chatty southerner (as Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused can attest), and critics have raved that Killer Joe marks the performance of McConaughey’s career. The respective hands of William Faulkner and Jim Thompson are everywhere discernible in Letts’ debut, with that lovely mix of sun-soaked grit , violence and pulpy melodrama, and a nutzoid third act that almost put McConaughey off participating in the bilious, NC-17-rated revenger’s tragedy. Thankfully he was able to see that the black humour – which admittedly revels in its trailer-trash stereotypes – raised the tale above its sadistic leanings: “It’s wonderfully twisted, cheerfully amoral, provocative and it’s upsetting your stomach, but you’re laughing at the same time.”[i]
As part of the film’s promotional campaign, the distributor LD Films hosted a poster contest, soliciting audience-submitted designs for Killer Joe that resulted in some amazing work, the winners of which are posted below.
KILLER JOE screens July 31 at 10:05pm in the Hall Theatre. More info on the film description page HERE.