In recent years, film translations of stage hits haven't been as prevalent as they once were. You might get the occasional "Doubt" or "Rabbit Hole," for instance, but compared to the early days of the talkies, when a large proportion of movies were based on Broadway hits, it's been slim pickings; audiences and critics have learned that most attempts at stage-to-screen translation fail to make the material truly cinematic.
It's been odd, then, to note the prevalence of theatrical adaptations at the Venice Film Festival. George Clooney's "The Ides Of March" is loosely adapted from the play "Farragut North," and manages better than most to open the stage version up, while Roman Polanski took on Yasmin Reza's "Carnage," and David Cronenberg turned Christopher Hampton's "The Talking Cure" into "A Dangerous Method." But the organizers have left one more until the tail end of the festival; "Killer Joe," which sees William Friedkin reunite with Tracy Letts, who wrote the play which spawned Friedkin's 2006 film "Bug," widely seen as a return to form for "The Exorcist" director. And the good news is that of all the theater adaptations this year, Friedkin's might well be the best.
The film is introduced with the atypical title 'William Friedkin's Film Of Tracy Letts' "Killer Joe,"' suggesting that it'll be a no-frills adaptation of the play, but that's not quite true; it's plenty faithful to the stage version, but Friedkin and Letts (the latter of whom adapted the screenplay himself) do a pretty good job in making the play cinematic, certainly more so than either "Carnage" or "A Dangerous Method," adding some striking locations (including an abandoned rollercoaster) and even a chase scene. Some staginess creeps in during the longer, more significant trailer-bound scenes, but Friedkin (and veteran DoP Caleb Deschanel) always shoots and cuts them with great clarity and purpose, and the scenes themselves are so electric that you don't particularly notice anything else.
It's also very funny (Haden Church and Gershon share a moment that got the biggest laugh we heard all festival long), and suspenseful when it has to be. The latter is thanks principally to McConaughey's performance. After years of coasting in rom-coms, 2011 has marked, with "The Lincoln Lawyer" and "Bernie," the start of the rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey, and it's more or less come to fruition here: he's absolutely terrific, serving up a potent reminder of why everyone was so excited about him way back in the mid 1990s. He initially seems to be the kind of smooth Texan gentleman that the actor's played many times before, but there's something slightly off; there's a focus, a stillness, an intensity to Joe that we've never really seen before, the actor rarely wasting a movement. And it's not long before we see exactly what it is that's off: he's a monster, and McConaughey is tremendous both on and off the leash, leading to an eye-searing scene of torture and humiliation involving Gershon's character and a drumstick from 'K-Fry-C' that's unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.
It won't change the face of cinema history, and it won't win any awards (it's too downright dirty for that), but it's furiously entertaining, and a very strong piece of drama from a director who hasn't much luck in the last thirty-odd years. Whether his collaboration with Letts continues or not, let's hope that Friedkin has more in the pipeline closer to "Killer Joe" than to "Rules of Engagement." [B+]