William Friedkin and Tracy Letts get each other. They made that clear in their first collaboration Bug and the second go around proves it. Letts and Friedkin share a vision for Killer Joe and, for better or for worse, they stick to it through the end. The opening credits even announce that William Friedkin is directing a screenplay by Tracy Letts, which acts as a nice warning beacon for people who irrationally hated Bug and didn’t learn their lesson.
Chris Smith gets kicked out of his mom’s house after a late night fight and crashes in his dad’s trailer. Soon his step-mom and sister Dottie find out the real reason for his visit. Chris and Dottie’s biological mother has a $50000 life insurance policy where all proceeds are set to go to Dottie. Chris suggests they hire Killer Joe to take care of the dirty work, buying him out of his debt to a drug dealer and giving the whole family a leg-up in the world. Killer Joe is a police detective who doubles as a hitman. You play by his rules or you pay the price. Too bad no one in the Smith family is very good at following the rules.
Of all the plays Tracy Letts could have adapted to the big screen, Killer Joe seems the least likely choice. It is his first play, written during grad school, and it’s more of an experiment than anything else. You can see the mind of a young playwright at work trying to emulate Tennessee Williams for maximum dramatic effect.Dottie is the ghostly presence that never leaves the house and might not exist, at least not the way the family thinks she does. The dad is the gruff but lovable family man and the step-mom is the sharp-tongued foil to his every move. Chris is the young heir who brings on the family’s destruction and Killer Joe is the outsider forced into circumstances he could never anticipate. Think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with blood and beer cans.
Taken as an attempt to translate the southern gentility of Williams to the trashy trailer park stereotype, Killer Joe is a success. The film only has a plot to bring the characters to big revelations about their identities. What plot twists happen exist just to air out everyone’s dirty laundry for the sake of catharsis. The violence brings the family together and the forced etiquette at the hands of Killer Joe tears them apart.William Friedkin once again proves his mastery of the technical craft of filmmaking. The film is mixed to perfection. Not one disturbing line is left unintelligible no matter how soft or loud. You can see everything you need to see because the lighting design is functional and artistic. Color is played with to define dominance in the story and the cast is kept in muted neutrals–save Killer Joe’s jet black uniform–to take on new life as the color filters slowly shift throughout a scene.
Ultimately, though, the experiment of Killer Joe falls short on film. There’s not enough substance to balance out the extravagant makeup effects that define the action of the film. The characters evolve in ways that makes sense onstage–big revelations yield character changes rather than organic arcs–but read as static and unbelievable on film. Bigger is better and more is more on film and a one room play focusing on characters alone isn’t going to go anywhere no matter how many set changes you throw in.
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