Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

16 May 2013

Killer Joe

I just have to tell you how bad this is!

Killer Joe has been sitting on my shelf for months. a couple months ago I had 35 films that I still wanted to see from 2012 and Killer Joe has always been one of them. My friend Justin told me this movie was terrible, but I insisted on seeing it. This is the great Matthew McConaughey season, we are told (with KJ, Magic Mike, and The Paperboy this year and The Lincoln Lawyer last year). I am inclined to agree. McConaughey's doing different and better projects than his standard rom-com fare. His performances are getting better, and he's getting more interesting to watch. But either Killer Joe is a hiccup in a winning streak, or we're only seeing something we want to see... that really isn't there.

The other pro, on the face of it, for Killer Joe is that it was written by Tracy Letts. I loved the original play of Killer Joe when it came out. It was part of the earliest strand of the 1990s New Brutalist movement in Britain. They loved KJ in the UK, though it didn't gain many fans in the US. Letts would have to wait until Bug came out to really take off. But I always thought it was good; I have always been a fan of the New Brutalists – Kane, Ravenhill, Butterworth: that's my stuff.

And that's fine and all. As a play. But William Friedkin's Killer Joe purports to be a movie. I'm here to tell you it isn't one, and the main trouble with this is Letts's screenplay. He hasn't cut down his dialogue even a bit, and the film is just one, long, talky scene after another. And another. The film starts with Emile Hirsch convincing his father (Thomas Haden Church) to hire someone to murder their mother, and the conversation between them goes on for about 7 or 8 minutes. This is fine for a play, really, especially if someone is going to be naked in the next minute or shoot someone in the stomach or fellate a chicken leg right in front of us. But these things are only shocking or strange in a play. In a movie... one has the feeling one has seen all of this before. I was bored out of my mind.

Killer Joe was strange and cool on stage in the early 90s before YouTube. Nowadays, we begin our days looking at video footage of hick Texans doing stupid things.

Friedkin's film has all sorts of other problems – does it like its characters? are we supposed to identify with their moral quandaries? are these people still talking? – but central to these problems is also the fact that McConaughey is just too likable and good-looking to play Joe in the first place. He's never really the scary, unpredictable force that he needed to be to make the play work. (Scott Glenn played Joe in the original New York production.) The film already doesn't work, but the unbridled, insensitive chaos at the center of what worked about the play, is completely lost in the film adaptation.

And let me predict for a moment before we all get too crazy: everyone should probably calm down about Letts's upcoming August: Osage County. If Friedkin couldn't get Bug or Killer Joe to work onscreen, why is it that everyone is thinking John Wells (who? he's directed one film) will get the Sam Shepard/Eugene O'Neill-inspired behemoth of August to work. With Letts once again penning the screenplay, this seems to me more and more unlikely.