I first came to the work of Tracy Letts through August, Osage County which I read and loved a few years ago. True to form, I ordered all his other plays and promptly forgot about them until I saw the movie version of Killer Joe starring Matthew McConaughey in the titular role. With True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club, there was a lot of talk about the resurrection of McConaughey’s career, the McConaughaissance as it was coined – but if you want to see him really push the boundaries of what you thought he could do, then check out his performance in Killer Joe, it is phenomenal.
It helps that Letts wrote a phenomenal part. The play tells the darkly comic tale of a young, not very successful drug dealer called Ansel, who, with the help of his feckless father Chris hires contract killer (and cop!) Joe to murder his mother in order to cash in a life insurance policy and pay off his debt to a local thug. Unsurprisingly, they don’t have any cash up front to hire Joe, so Ansel offers his sister Dottie as a down payment, with the cash to follow after the murder. The rest of this squalid, violent and often hilarious tale plays out in the confines of the family’s grim trailer somewhere in Texas and you just know that no one is going to come out of this well. The play is a hard-boiled, pulpy, Tarantino-esque burst of delicious depravity, which is probably why it makes for an excellent movie. Killer Joe is Letts’ first play (from 1993) and while it doesn’t reach the acidic brilliance of August, Osage County or his other great play Superior Donuts, it has a raw realism and urgent ferociousness that make it hard to resist. Of the play, Letts says
I think one of the principal aspects of that kind of noir are people who want things really badly, who want and feel things really strongly, and yet who make some terrible decisions in their attempts to get them. I think something about that is very human, actually. There’s something about that we can all identify with.
And strangely, we can identify with these characters – they are the ultimate dysfunctional family, craving order and rules like naughty children, unable to look after themselves. Once they hire Joe, he provides them with that order and becomes almost a surrogate father figure that they all look to, even though he is there to commit matricide. It’s telling that the key scenes of the play take place at the dinner table – the ritual of the family meal turned on its head as Joe ‘seduces’ Dottie over a tuna casserole when she has effectively been pimped out by her own brother and the final devastatingly violent dinner scene is oddly interrupted with a request to say grace. Joe has a moral code, whether you agree with it or not and the carnage in the final scene of the play is triggered by rudeness
No need for name-calling. I never called you any names. I am a guest here! You be polite!
Joe even seems to genuinely want to marry Dottie and do things the right way. Dottie herself, is easily the most intriguing character in the play and I imagine that your assessment of her character would be based on how an actress plays her. Over the years many famous actresses have inhabited Dottie – Fairuza Balk, Michelle Williams and Sarah Paulson – undoubtedly drawn to the ambiguity and mystery surrounding her. Dottie may be a little bit ‘simple’. She appears younger than her 21 years. She is equally underestimated and undervalued by her family. Her mother tried to kill her,
My momma tried to kill me when I was real little. She put a pillow over my face and tried to stop me from breathing, ‘cause she cared more about herself then her little baby, and she didn’t love me like a mother loves a little baby. And she thought she’d done it, and she was happy, ‘cause then she didn’t have to worry about me….growing up to be the part of her that was cut out and grown into a better thing than she had been, had ever been’.
Her father and brother are trading her sexually, with her father suggesting that this forced prostitution ‘might do her good’. She is either shielded or used, but Dottie is sharper than they all realize. Much of the humour in the play comes from her,
DOTTIE: How are you gonna kill Momma? JOE: Ohhh…that’s not…appropriate dinner conversation. DOTTIE: Not unless you poison her.
Dottie, of all the characters is the one you feel is meant for more than this trailer and this life and although it may be called Killer Joe, this play is all about Dottie. I can understand why some people would not like Killer Joe. There is a notoriously controversial scene involving a chicken leg that once seen will never be forgotten. Nearly all the characters are slatternly and despicable, their lives are dead end and desperate, with no hope of changing. They are in bad situations, making bad decisions and they plan violence and murder as casually as they decide what to watch on the television. They live in a moral vacuum where they are desensitized to the cruelty of their lives.
But what Letts cleverly does is while showing us how banal evil and violence can be and how they can grow slowly and undetected in ordinary lives while rotting people away from the inside. As he says himself,
Look at these people….they are us. They are a manifestation of us on the fringe of our society.
Now, if you haven’t read Killer Joe and won’t have a chance to see it on stage anytime soon, I strongly recommend you check out the movie. If you think you have the stomach for it 🙂
20 Books of Summer: 3/20
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