In recent years, film translations of stage hits haven’t been as prevalent as they once were. You might get the occasional “Doubt” or “Rabbit Hole,” for instance, but compared to the early days of the talkies, when a large proportion of movies were based on Broadway hits, it’s been slim pickings; audiences and critics have learned that most attempts at stage-to-screen translation fail to make the material truly cinematic.
It’s been odd, then, to note the prevalence of theatrical adaptations at the Venice Film Festival. George Clooney‘s “The Ides Of March” is loosely adapted from the play “Farragut North,” and manages better than most to open the stage version up, while Roman Polanski took on Yasmin Reza‘s “Carnage,” and David Cronenberg turned Christopher Hampton‘s “The Talking Cure” into “A Dangerous Method.” But the organizers have left one more until the tail end of the festival; “Killer Joe,” which sees William Friedkin reunite with Tracy Letts, who wrote the play which spawned Friedkin’s 2006 film “Bug,” widely seen as a return to form for “The Exorcist” director. And the good news is that of all the theater adaptations this year, Friedkin’s might well be the best.
“Killer Joe” was the 1993 play, Letts’ first, that brought the writer to worldwide attention, proving a much-staged hit around the world, and it’s long been a target for film adaptation. The plot begins with Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) deep in debt to a local mobster after his monstrous, unseen mother steals two kilos of coke that he was meant to sell. In order to make up the shortfall, he suggests to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) that they arrange for Chris’ mother, and Ansel’s ex-wife, to be killed; she’s taken out a $50,000 life insurance policy of which Chris’ troubled sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the beneficiary. Dottie agrees with the plan, Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is cut in on the action, and a local cop with a sideline in murder, ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is hired to do the deed. But they can’t pay his $20,000 upfront fee, so Dottie is put up as ‘a retainer’ until they receive the insurance money. As you imagine, things don’t go too well, and all kinds of bloodiness follows.
The film is introduced with the atypical title ‘William Friedkin’s Film Of Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe,”‘ suggesting that it’ll be a no-frills adaptation of the play, but that’s not quite true; it’s plenty faithful to the stage version, but Friedkin and Letts (the latter of whom adapted the screenplay himself) do a pretty good job in making the play cinematic, certainly more so than either “Carnage” or “A Dangerous Method,” adding some striking locations (including an abandoned rollercoaster) and even a chase scene. Some staginess creeps in during the longer, more significant trailer-bound scenes, but Friedkin (and veteran DoP Caleb Deschanel) always shoots and cuts them with great clarity and purpose, and the scenes themselves are so electric that you don’t particularly notice anything else.
Because, while it’s maybe not up there with the top rank of Friedkin’s 1970s work, the film joins “To Live and Die In L.A” and “Bug” as the highlights of the director’s subsequent output, and we can’t imagine a better film version of “Killer Joe.” Make no mistake, it’s a nasty, grimy, ultra-violent piece of work, and perhaps not the most significant, soul-stirring play-to-film you’ll ever see. But there are depths to Letts’ work, from the hints of Greek tragedy to the depiction of Dottie, the innocent (or is she?) used as a bargaining chip by the men in her life, who finally decides to take her destiny into her own hands.
It’s also very funny (Haden Church and Gershon share a moment that got the biggest laugh we heard all festival long), and suspenseful when it has to be. The latter is thanks principally to McConaughey’s performance. After years of coasting in rom-coms, 2011 has marked, with “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Bernie,” the start of the rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey, and it’s more or less come to fruition here: he’s absolutely terrific, serving up a potent reminder of why everyone was so excited about him way back in the mid 1990s. He initially seems to be the kind of smooth Texan gentleman that the actor’s played many times before, but there’s something slightly off; there’s a focus, a stillness, an intensity to Joe that we’ve never really seen before, the actor rarely wasting a movement. And it’s not long before we see exactly what it is that’s off: he’s a monster, and McConaughey is tremendous both on and off the leash, leading to an eye-searing scene of torture and humiliation involving Gershon’s character and a drumstick from ‘K-Fry-C’ that’s unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.
Gershon, incidentally, gives an incredibly brave performance in a career that’s had a few, and the film serves as a reminder that she should work far more than she does. Haden Church adds another fine turn to his gallery of dimwits (his son asks him “How you gonna kill somebody? You can’t even tell time”), remaining sympathetic and harried throughout, while proving to be a touch sharper than you’d given him credit for. Juno Temple meanwhile demonstrates why her star has been rising so quickly; it’s a tricky part, given the non-sequiturs and sleeptalking, but she’s spectacularly good as a girl more savvy than her partners in crime, who infantilize and sexualize her simultaneously. Hirsch, is perhaps the weakest of the ensemble — not that he’s bad, but he feels a little adrift in places, his trademark intensity meaning he doesn’t always play so well with others.
It won’t change the face of cinema history, and it won’t win any awards (it’s too downright dirty for that), but it’s furiously entertaining, and a very strong piece of drama from a director who hasn’t much luck in the last thirty-odd years. Whether his collaboration with Letts continues or not, let’s hope that Friedkin has more in the pipeline closer to “Killer Joe” than to “Rules of Engagement.” [B+]