William Friedkin and Tracy Letts are a match made in heaven—or, perhaps more accurately, hell. Friedkin, a Chicago native, made a name for himself directing The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), brutal dramas that became touchstones of the so-called “New Hollywood.” Letts, a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble and a Pulitzer Prize winner for August: Osage County, launched his career as a playwright with Killer Joe, about a sadistic Dallas cop who moonlights as a hit man, and followed it with Bug, chronicling the romance between a lonely middle-aged woman and a paranoid schizophrenic who believes his skin is crawling with insects. Letts and Friedkin first collaborated on a screen adaptation of Bug that won the FIPRESCI Award at the 2006 Cannes film festival and was praised for its claustrophobic staging and hallucinatory mise-en-scene. Now they’ve returned with a movie version of Killer Joe, starring Matthew McConaughey as the ruthless title character.
As the two movies reveal, Friedkin and Letts share an appetite for intense encounters in enclosed spaces between people of questionable morality. These encounters tend to result in bursts of extreme violence, which Friedkin makes as graphic as possible. From The Exorcist to Cruising (1980) to Jade (1995), Friedkin has often pushed the boundaries in his treatment of sex and violence, and these new independent features, free of studio constraints, have allowed him to plumb the depths of his signature themes. The nihilism of The Exorcist, the blurred line between good and evil in Cruising and The French Connection, and, perhaps most important, the menacing comedy of his Harold Pinter adaptation, The Birthday Party (1968), are all amplified in Killer Joe, whose NC-17 rating the director probably considers a badge of honor.
In many ways Killer Joe harks back to the low-budget chamber pieces of Friedkin’s early filmmaking career, not just the aforementioned Pinter drama but also Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking gay play The Boys in the Band (1970). Each film owes a great deal to its source material: the action is largely confined to a single setting over the course of a few hours, and the narrative is driven almost entirely by dialogue. Yet both are the work of a highly idiosyncratic filmmaker, his strong command of cinematic language elevating them above the status of filmed plays. Friedkin’s edits are jarring and often incongruous, intensifying the heated altercations between characters. The many pans and tracking shots in The Boys in the Band and the touches of surrealism in The Birthday Party give them a unique aesthetic foundation.
The physical and verbal abuse in these movies isn’t nearly as explicit as Killer Joe, but Friedkin’s goal is the same: to create a perfect storm of montage and character interplay within a confined space, one that culminates in a disturbing loss of humanity. His flair for montage contributed to the chase scenes in The French Connection, and his use of visual confinement also gave key scenes in The Exorcist a palpable sense of claustrophobia. Killer Joe and Bug bear a striking resemblance to these early works, suggesting that Friedkin may have spent the last few decades circling back to this initial style. After floundering with uninspired studio fare (The Hunted, Rules of Engagement) and half-assed attempts to recapture the incendiary impact of his early work (The Guardian, Blue Chips), he’s found new material that suits his increasingly misanthropic, disparaging view of the world.
Friedkin was in the audience when Bug premiered off-Broadway and quickly approached Letts with the idea of a film version; the playwright set to work on a screenplay while Friedkin raised $4 million from independent producers and eventually won distribution from Lionsgate Films. Friedkin saw Bug as a suspense picture, while Letts considers the play a love story; the result is somewhere in between. The romance between Agnes (Ashley Judd) and Peter (Michael Shannon) blossoms by way of folie à deux, as she gradually buys into his delusions. The majority of the film unfolds in the seedy motel room where Agnes lives, and the heightened sense of isolation is what makes Bug a horror film. Yet Friedkin is less interested in the tenets of the genre than in the idea of pushing the audience to its limits. The film ends ambiguously, bloodily, and, to say the least, unhappily.
Killer Joe is a pitch-black comedy with colorful dialogue and eloquent staging, but Friedkin seems to find the most pleasure in graphically depicting violence and psychosexuality. In the opening scene his down-and-out protagonist Chris (Emile Hirsch), who’s deep in debt to some local drug lords, sees his stepmother (Gina Gershon) naked from the waist down, and Friedkin frames her pubis in a tight close-up.
That image is enough to lay the groundwork for an unapologetically lurid film. Chris hires Killer Joe Cooper to murder his mother so he can collect on the insurance claim, and after complications prevent him from covering the fee, Joe takes on Chris’s sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), a mysterious and buxom naïf, as a “retainer.” The idea of sex and violence as commodity is central to the film, with Friedkin intent on blurring the line between the two; Joe is in the murder business, yet he answers to his own libido when he seizes Dottie as collateral.
Things reach a fever pitch when the likelihood of Chris paying his debt drops, and tensions come to a head in the family’s mobile home. Here, as in The Birthday Party and Bug, the sense of claustrophobia concentrates the action onscreen. But Killer Joe also reaches new depths in displaying the characters’ loss of humanity. What starts out as a relatively unobjectionable film devolves into utter insanity. The violence and degradation is nothing short of appalling—the “fried chicken scene” must be seen to be believed—but Friedkin seems downright zestful in his staging.
The most obvious similarity between Bug and Killer Joe is how Friedkin refuses to let the audience enjoy any conventional movie comforts. This is what ultimately separates him from his 70s peers, people like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese who went on to enjoy much bigger movie careers. They want to entertain their viewers, and Friedkin wants to pulverize his. Luckily for him, he’s found the perfect weapon in Letts’ plays. Their pulp sensibilities and nightmarish milieus provide an ideal avenue for Friedkin’s ongoing attack on moral absolutism, not so much erasing the line between good and evil as ignoring it altogether.