KILLER JOE *** (out of five)
Some film adaptations of plays use the original material as a jumping-off point to create a cinematic work; others are more content to be a faithful, filmed version of the play (I’m not talking about filmed stage performances, which are completely different beasts). The best one of the faithful kind I know is Glengarry Glen Ross; it essentially maintains the play in its entire form (and adds a character and a scene, famously owned by Alec Baldwin). Films of plays in this manner celebrate dialogue, and thus, to some, come across as “stagey”. To me, they inevitably have a very particular voice, that of the playwright; enjoy the playwright’s work, you’ll generally enjoy the film (as I did, very much, of David Mamet’s Glen Ross.)
Tracy Letts is not as good a playwright as David Mamet but he certainly has a particular (and strong) voice, and William Friedkin, now in his 70s, is happy to capture it in full, essentially filming the play “out in the world”, but not carrying it over into a full-on cinematic adaptation. He did this with the author’s Bug (2006)and he does it again with Killer Joe, a funny and terribly nasty little piece of trailer-trash porn (not real porn) that has no redeeming qualities but is undeniably good fun if you’re willing to leave your (good) taste at the door. Emile Hirsch plays a no-good young man who concocts a scheme to kill him mother to get her insurance money; he enlists a cop who is also a hitman, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to do the deed. Trouble ensues.
McConaughey is terrific (Hirsch less so) and there are also excellent performances from Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon. Towards the end it goes a little over-the-top – even for my tastes – and the final scene really is misguided in its desire to shock (it is shocking, but it’s also stupid). It’s like a cheap, nasty dessert: completely devoid of nutrition, probably very bad for you, but kind of delicious while it briefly lasts.