Premise: (from IMDB) When a debt puts a young man’s life in danger, he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance.
About: William Friedkin, the famed director of The Exorcist, has been sitting on a Scriptshadow favorite, the dual-female captive script, Sunflower, for a long time. Well Friedkin sadly left that project and moved onto another. I didn’t know much about Killer Joe except for the killer cast it had put together. Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Hayden-Church, and Gina Gershon. Now that I’ve read the script, I know why he jumped. While Killer Joe isn’t as good as Sunflower, it’s pretty close. This is some A-grade writing here. The script is actually an adaption of a play written by Tracy Letts (Letts also wrote the screenplay). I don’t know the chain of events that led to the deal, but Letts is the writer of Friedkin’s last film, so it looks like the power of friendships prevails in Hollywood once again. Letts moved into writing from acting, where he’s played dozens of bit parts in television shows, including Seinfeld and Prison Break. He won the 2008 Pulitzer prize for his play August: Osage County.
Writer: Tracy Letts
Details: 123 pages – not sure when this draft was written (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
This movie’s going to be good. I can’t promise you that but sometimes you read a script and you just know. There are extenuating circumstances. The wild card is Matthew McConaughey in the Killer Joe role, but even though Matthew’s on the verge of becoming a caricature of himself (“Becoming?” Who am I kidding? He already is), I believe he’ll nail this role. There’s a low-key dangerous sensibility to the character that fits right into McConaughey’s darker range, a range we saw glimpses of all the way back in Dazed and Confused. But this is all unimportant. What’s important is that Killer Joe, one of the better scripts I’ve read in awhile, is a rockin’ story.
Chris, the kind of guy who gets in trouble just by leaving the house, is manically banging on the door to his parent’s trailer when we meet him. We’re in the middle of WhiteTrashville, so it’s no surprise the family’s got issues. Chris’ father, Ansel, recently divorced his crazy wife and married Sharla, who’s so trashy she walks around the house half-naked no matter who’s around. Chris also has a sister, 20 year old Dottie, who’s pretty enough to make you stare, but slower than a lobotomized turtle.
Chris has a problem. He owes some bad people a lot of money. 6,000 bucks to be exact. In trailer park money that’s like a million dollars. And he’s begging for his dad to loan him the dough. Ansel thinks that’s pretty funny. When the hell has he ever had 6000 dollars?
So Chris has an alternative plan. What if they get someone to kill Ansel’s ex-wife, his mom? Chris has it on authority that Dottie (his sister) is the sole benefactor of his mom’s 50,000 dollar life insurance policy. Chris has heard of a man, appropriately named Killer Joe, who will do the job for 20k. With the rest they can pay off his debt and split up the money. Ansel doesn’t have to think about it too long. He’s in.
Killer Joe is smooth, logical, a calming presence – the kind of guy you might discuss the rainforests with while warming up some hot chocolate. But you get the sense that he is a volcano waiting to erupt. Cross this man and you will endure torture that would make the Taliban blush.
After introductions have been made, Killer Joe gives them his terms. At the top of the list? Payment in advance. Hmm, that’s going to be tough, Chris says, explaining the plan behind the insurance. They have to kill the person to *get* the money. Then this discussion is over, Killer Joe says, and walks out.
Except…Killer Joe spots Dottie and changes his mind. He could be persuaded if they gave him some kind of…retainer. The indication is clear and Chris and Ansel make a deal with the devil, handing Dottie over to Killer Joe while the transaction goes down.
As you might imagine, every possible thing that could go wrong with this plan goes wrong. And it’s all brilliant.
What can I say? This was just a really good script. It starts with the dialogue, which, as you know, I don’t talk about a whole lot unless it truly impresses me. This impressed me. It’s thin (not too wordy), it’s crisp, it moves the story forward, it’s never obvious, it’s humorous, it never gets bogged down in exposition, it’s imaginative…I feel like in most of the scripts I read, I know what the characters are going to say before they do. I was never quite sure what was going to come out of these characters’ mouths, and that’s what made it so fun.
Where Letts really separates himself though is in the humor. He really captures the social dynamic of this world. The characters think, act, and talk exactly like you’d imagine they would. You get gems like this when Chris realizes they can’t pay Killer Joe, “We could do it ourselves,” he says. Ansel replies, “You gonna kill somebody? You can’t even tell time.”
Overall, a great script to study for dialogue.
In a lot of ways, Killer Joe reminds me of an under-the-radar movie that came out a couple of years ago, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.” If you haven’t seen it, go get it now. It’s about people who plan what’s supposed to be a simple crime and then everything goes to hell. But I thought this was even better because in addition to all the crazy shit, Killer Joe has a great villain.
When you title your script after your villain, it’s a safe bet that he’s a strong character, and Killer Joe doesn’t disappoint. Usually, the scariest villains are the ones where you only see their good side. The reason for this is, you know that sooner or later that good side is going to break, and that there’s something horrifying underneath. That was the genius behind Christoph Waltz’ character in Inglorious Basterds. We were just waiting for that character to pop. And even though he never quite did, our fear that he would drove our fascination with him. Killer Joe is very much that kind of character.
And again, this is how you get your script made. You create a character that a big actor can’t say no to. That’s why McConaughey signed on to this. That’s how they got the funding. That’s why this movie is going into production. I dare you to read this script and not be fascinated by this character. He says and does the kind of shit that actors kill to say and do.
Another thing that sets this apart is that you never know what’s coming next. Obstacles keep getting thrown at our hero. The plan keeps having to be reevaluated. If you give your character a straight path to his goal, it’ll always be boring. You give them a goal and then continue to alter the playing field? Now you have an interesting story, which is exactly what happens here.
I don’t have many complaints. I think the script could’ve been a little shorter. There’s some weird stuff in the middle where Chris is going to porno movies and starts imagining Dottie in the role of the porn stars. I’m thinking that stuff wasn’t in the play and someone told Letts to make the movie more “cinematic” so it was thrown in.
While the ending is wonderful and batshit fucking crazy, it does have a very “play-like” final moment. It’s hard to explain without spoiling it but when you read it, you’ll know what I mean.
But man, this is how you do it. This is how you write a script. The page count is long but the writing is so sparse you don’t realize it. He’s only telling us the bare essentials of what we need to know in order to keep the story moving and boy do I wish more writers would take that cue. Killer Joe was a very pleasant surprise.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: I’ve found that if your script is more dialogue based, you can make your page count longer, because dialogue reads faster (and by association is easier to get through).