Friedkin’s Latest re-taps playwright Tracy Letts for a new infusion of Southern darkness
Kier-La Janisse


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.


About the author:

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, founder of Spectacular Optical Publications and The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) in Vancouver, was the Festival Director of Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) and contributed to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington, 2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (PS Press, 2017). She co-edited (with Paul Corupe) and published the anthology books KID POWER! (2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017). She edited the book Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive (forthcoming), and is currently co-authoring (with Amy Searles) the book ‘Unhealthy and Aberrant’: Depictions of Horror Fandom in Film and Television and co-curating (with Clint Enns) an anthology book on the films of Robert Downey, Sr., as well as writing a monograph about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. She was a producer on Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime: the Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s and Sean Hogan’s We Always Find Ourselves in the Sea and her first film as director/producer, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is due out from Severin Films in 2020.


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