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Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Notebook: ‘Killer Joe’ shows the graphic reality of film can kill its drama

Critic’s Notebook: ‘Killer Joe’ shows the graphic reality of film can kill its drama
Matthew McConaughey stars as the title character in the film version of “Killer Joe.”
(Skip Bolen, LD Entertainment)

William Friedkin’s film of Tracy Letts’ play"Killer Joe” is nasty, brutish and just short enough to concentrate its fiendish energies for maximum wincing effect.

As enthralling as it is repulsive, the movie seized hold of my attention with the ferocious tenacity of T-Bone, the pit bull chained to a neighboring trailer home in the trashy Dallas outskirts where the story is set. But when the brutality was finished and the lights came up, I had to wonder about the point of sitting through so much casual bloodshed and prolonged sexual humiliation. There are scenes in “Killer Joe” — including an infamous one with a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick — that make the NC-17 rating seem almost lenient.

After the film, I headed to my car, my face frozen into the blank, slightly stupefied mask of a married man stepping back into the sunlight after an afternoon excursion to an adult movie house. Pornography, a Supreme Court justice famously declared, is knowable at a glance. But what about art that crosses over into the lurid? Can intelligent vision mingle freely with cheap sensation without losing itself in the melee?

PHOTOS: NC-17 films -- Why they got the rating

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When I saw “Killer Joe” in New York in 1998, the production, though definitely not for the faint of heart, was notable for shining a spotlight on a thrilling new playwriting talent. An American gothic with a sneaky sense of humor, Letts, an actor and writer best known today as thePulitzer Prize-winningauthor of “August: Osage County,” demonstrated a rare gift for naturalistic dialogue as well as a surprising penchant for thriller scenarios more familiar to sweat-shirted fans of slasher films than to cardiganed playgoers of more subdued tastes.

Letts followed up “Killer Joe” with “Bug,” another drama that blended intimate psychology with violent suspense, a combination that proved irresistible to Friedkin, who knows that it’s evil’s banal side, the way it can unassumingly creep into everyday lives before capsizing them, that’s the real horror. For all the diabolical head-spinning in “The Exorcist” and the breathtaking car chases and urban shootouts in “The French Connection,” it’s the glimpse of human familiarity amid the malevolence that makes these nightmares so terrifying.

An auteur-dramatist match made in movie heaven, so it would seem. But in the super-vivid translation of “Bug” and “Killer Joe” to the screen, something is lost that exposes fundamental — I’m tempted to say irreconcilable — differences between theater and film.

With “Bug,” it’s film’s awkward relationship to theatrical metaphor. The camera makes literal what onstage can comfortably exist in a liminal state between reality and allegory. The story of the interdependence of a waitress who’s being menaced by her violent ex-husband and a Gulf War veteran who believes his body has become infested by critters planted by secret agents, “Bug” can be interpreted as a parable of intimacy between two traumatized souls. Set in a seedy motel room, the play constructs its own world of claustrophobic peril that is easily accepted in the theater but seems overcooked when shot in what looks to be an actual roadside fleabag.

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With “Killer Joe,” a more fully realized film with a mesmerizing snakelike performance by Matthew McConaughey in the title role of a hit man, the matter is more complicated. The filmmaking is gripping from start to finish, but graphic overkill ultimately diminishes our ability to respond to the drama.

The characters of “Killer Joe,” caught up in a homicidal scheme that is treated with the casualness of a grocery list, have become desensitized to the coarseness and cruelty of their downtrodden lives. But the film is guilty of a kind of imitative fallacy. It desensitizes its audience to the squalor and abjection that the play, even when wallowing in the “detritus of the poor,” as a stage direction infelicitously puts it, furtively satirizes as emblematic of an America run amok.

Comedy brings critical distance. The laughter hasn’t entirely been banished from Friedkin’s film, but it’s less crackling than it was in the theater. Friedkin, however, doesn’t want to tickle us — he’s out to short-circuit our nervous systems.

At the start of the film, Gina Gershon’s frontal nudity (she’s not wearing pants or underwear) greets us with a calculated audacity. She plays Sharla Smith, stepmother of Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), the hapless young man who takes a contract out on his mother to collect on her life insurance policy to pay a drug-dealing debt. Unable to afford Joe Cooper’s criminal services, he agrees to put up his wacko naif sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as a retainer, something their father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), considers an excellent bargain.

When Joe enters this primal household, his commanding courtesy is far more intimidating than the Smith family’s slapping and snarling. He means business, whether that entails seducing Dottie (a scene that is as erotic as it is disturbing) or offing Chris’ detested mother, who appears only once (in a cameo that recalls Hitchcock’s"Psycho”).

Not much is left to the imagination. Chris doesn’t just return to the trailer beaten up by the drug lord’s goons as he does in the play. We witness the actual attack, blow by bloody blow. Letts wrote the screenplay, so this isn’t simply a matter of Friedkin hijacking Letts’ narrative for visual effect. Writing and directing work in tandem to shock us.

The great advantage of this tactic is that boredom, the toll often exacted for more civilized fantasies, is minimal. The film has the immediacy of a car crash, sweeping you into the emergency of the moment. Our apathy, our jadedness is pierced. The question is — at what cost?

The physical limitations of theater — chiefly, its inability to reproduce the world with documentary ease — are a source of artistic strength in the right hands. The better playwrights know what to leave out in the interest of imaginative provocation.

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What’s more, they recognize, as the ancient Greeks did, that some things are better left offstage. Violent incident in the Athenian golden age was relegated to narration, often by a neutral messenger. This preference for telling over sadistic showing wasn’t simply to avoid dramatizing events that would be hard to stage convincingly, though maintaining a steady suspension of disbelief is generally a good strategy in the theater.

The focus of Greek tragedy was on the meaning of catastrophe rather than on its explicit presentation. From its earliest days, Western drama has been less concerned with how than with why. This is not the case with film, even those dealing with the classics, as Julie Taymor’s gory “Titus” and Ralph Fiennes’ bruising"Coriolanus” splatteringly reveal. If Friedkin were to film “Oedipus Rex,” he would give us not just the bloody eye sockets but a close-up of the actual gouging and a flashback montage of Oedipus unwittingly slaughtering his father and copulating with his mother.

PHOTOS: NC-17 films -- Why they got the rating

This is understandable. The power of film is primarily visual. Movie theaters maintain a dream-fostering darkness that makes it easy to forget everyone around you and escape into a world of images. Film, at its artistic best, is an invitation to unconscious realms.

It’s much harder to lose sight of being part of an audience when attending a play. There’s something inherently analytical about theatrical space. (Catharsis depends on our daytime mind, our ability to make connections and draw conclusions, as much as it relies on our nighttime imagination.) Collectively, we are asked to complete the stage picture and assess the value of its vision.

The movie version of “Killer Joe” doesn’t need any such filling in. It sets out to overwhelm the viewer and succeeds in a way that isn’t that easy to do in an age when the most outlandish fetishes are just a mouse click away.

As for the value of its vision, the roller-coaster plot is a dizzying thrill. That takes dramatic craft and some canny acting. But art is more than diversion. At the very least it shouldn’t leave you saddled with a voyeur’s misgivings and a desire for a shower.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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