Let’s Kill Mommy Tonight

Or, Just Watch These Dimwits Do It

Make no mistake about it: we love Tracy Letts. Purely in the playwrighting sense, of course. In our previous published review of Killer Joe, you’ll learn why we think he is among the best American playwrights around.

In 2006, William Friedkin directed Tracy Letts’s Bug from Letts’s screenplay (a must-see dark comedy about contagious paranoid dementia reviewed here). That worked out so well, they paired again to bring Letts’s first play to the screen. You’ll find it quite something to behold, a showcase for Letts’s ability to pull some of our species worst traits front and center, portray their offensiveness vividly, and then have us look at them aghast while tittering as tempers flare and blood flies–well, his is a special talent, indeed.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a no account and inveterate gambler, owes $6,000. He can’t pay it and is desperate, as a loan shark has threatened to kill him. He begs his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), for the money. However, dad is even more of a deadbeat than he is. Chris then reveals that his mother, his father’s ex, has a life insurance policy that will pay $50,000. He pitches the idea of contracting mom’s death. Dad sees the merit in it without asking the source of the information. Dottie (Juno Temple, who really captures the essence of Dottie), Chris’s sister, of whom he is protective, overhears the conversation. She’s 20, an innocent, a virgin, who longs for escape from her situation. She endorses it as a good idea. Dad’s second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), joins in as well, while constantly berating Chris as a moron. Obviously, nobody much likes mom. More obvious, Chris has given the murder of his mother some thought, as he has the likely executioner lined up. That is Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey, buttoned up and terrific), a police detective with a hitman sideline.

As you might guess, the Smith family is a collection of dim bulbs, ne’er-do-wells who lack even the ability to dream big. Letts plays up every bad trait they possess with both caricature and their casual acceptance of the idea of murdering mommy. Naturally, being as mentally dull as they are, they overlook a few very important details that set the stage for an ending worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy; that is, bloody.

Of these characters, many will find Joe the most fascinating. While the family is disheveled and dumb and always in disarray, Joe is tailored in his dress, respectful in his demeanor, clear in his thinking and communication. Behind the façade of correctness you sense lurks a different person. You would think such as man would steer clear of the Smiths. He would have, too, had he not caught a glimpse of adorable Dottie and decided he wanted her as the Smiths’s retainer in lieu of the payment they did not have. Plenty of weirdness stems from Joe’s fateful decision.

If you enjoy the film, you might like to read the play Killer Joe. Or, perhaps you might read the play first and see how the various performances correspond with your conceptualization of the characters. You’ll notice that the film expands somewhat on the play, including the loan shark and his minions, and moving scenes out of the trailer. Otherwise, the film is the written play brought to life. c/w

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