By William Wolf


Director William Friedkin’s adaptation of the play “Killer Joe” by Tracy Letts is a good example of what happens when the kookiness of a sick comedy built for the theater is rendered more explicit in a movie version. In this case, even with a screenplay by the author, what was nastily but comically offbeat and entertaining on stage emerges as a disgustingly bloody affair with graphic violence as the major effect. The humor in the original is undermined by Friedkin’s heavy hand. Bloody close-ups have a way of doing that.

The plot of “Killer Joe” involves a seedy entourage of trailer trash. Chris (Emile Hirsch) wants to have his mother killed for the insurance money and connives with his father (Thomas Haden Church) to have a detective/assassin named Joe (Matthew McConaughey) do the deed. But they don’t even have a down payment. Never mind. Joe will settle for an uNsual retainer—possession of Chris’s teenage sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie has ideas of her own. An over-the-top Gina Gershon portrays Sharla, Chris’s stepmother.

The key to the work is capturing the craziness of this bunch of misfits as they blunder toward violent mayhem. The theater provides the opportunity make-believe, but with the intimacy of film, the minute one crosses the line with explicit violence, one loses the offbeat quality, which is replaced by off-putting, bloody scenes of horror. It is the play itself that has been assassinated.


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