William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts are natural bedfellows. They share a love of the grotesque; the comically absurd. Letts’ Killer Joe, a lip curling Texan noir, allows Hollywood to double down by giving voice to a Southern writer that shares its lurid obsession with underclass depravity in the twice defeated South; that’s the civil war and the culture wars that followed. Better yet, it gives Friedkin the chance to show off his party trick; pressure cooker filmmaking. He boxes a bunch of grenades, lights the fuse, inserts a pin-hole camera and waits for the fireworks. When Killer Joe’s go off they’re as spectacular and comically satisfying as anything Friedkin’s ever done; worthy successors to The Birthday Party and Linda Blair’s bedroom barnstorming. Now execute a crash zoom as you aim your psychical camera at my scowling face: there’s a problem.
That Letts, here adapting his own play, has Southern roots; born in Tulsa, once resident in Dallas; might have given a little credence to the idea that his characters – delinquent children and dim-witted adults, all of whom are base, criminal, immoral, perhaps borderline incestuous – were drawn from life. He could have claimed the mantle of an American Andrea Dunbar; from backwater to typewriter. But then you discover he’s the son of an author and a college professor, and started his career in Chicago, and you wonder whether corrupt lawman Joe, his nubile fuck and her family of ridiculants, aren’t just more of the same from the haughty North.
It’s the audience’s compact with the author that makes Killer Joe, for all its wry depravity, one of Friedkin’s safest efforts. Pinter, at least, had the decency to victimise his audience as well as his characters. The Exorcist was a challenge to their convictions and sensibilities. Letts’ degenerate carnival, by contrast, in which each character is unashamedly wrongheaded, is an affirmation of old prejudice. It’s a complete world, kicked into frame, often unbearably intimate, and we enjoy our stay, thanks to the freakish company, but heads will shake in Austin. Some may fall off.Pages: 1 2