Polarity in the collaborations of William Friedkin and Tracy Letts

Daniel Owen

‘It’s there, do you see it?’[1] 

William Friedkin is a director well known for giving us one of the greatest car chase sequences in film history, in The French Connection (1971), and one of the greatest horror pictures in film history, The Exorcist (1973). Nearly 40 years later Friedkin remains a powerful force in the industry, finding a partnership with the American playwright Tracy Letts in his film adaptations of Letts’s plays Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2012). In each film Friedkin and Letts, who also wrote the screenplay for both films, present the audience with characters on the fringe of society: hollow characters who look around them to find a compass of morality. Unfortunately, the backgrounds and surroundings of these characters doom them to seek love, help and guidance in the wrong places.

The bold tone of duality and fracture in each of these films is a theme which Friedkin and Letts both confess to hold as an interest in their work, the notion that the human condition is split, that we each hold a Hyde somewhere amongst our Dr Jekyll. By looking into the aspects of our personalities that are paranoid and cruel, these two artists allow the darker sides of the psyche to manifest in their fiction, a process which Friedkin joked probably kept him from becoming a serial killer.

Although we are presented with the dichotomies of the individual, it is their darkness which consumes the characters of these films. In their first collaboration Bug, we see Agnes White (Ashley Judd) deteriorate as a result of reaching out and clinging to the most powerful thing around her. At the beginning of the film this is drug use, a habit which started when she lost her young son some years earlier. Agnes, at this point, is a lonely mother whose personality has been fractured and is in need of someone to mend it. In Friedkin’s world, however, there are no people who are universally good and helpful, no knights of old ready to help guide Agnes back to balance. Instead, Agnes is introduced to Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a recently released soldier who, unbeknown to Agnes, is mentally ill. Peter’s paranoid personality, manifested in his belief that Agnes’s motel room is riddled with bugs planted there by the US government, becomes infectious as Peter’s conviction in his delusion causes Agnes to allow the paranoid aspects of her personality to rise to the surface.

It is Friedkin and Letts’s projection of a shared world view which allows this to work so well. At first, Peter doesn’t appear mentally ill, nor does he seem a bad influence in Agnes’s life. In fact, when considered alongside Agnes’s abusive ex-boyfriend who has recently got out of jail, Peter’s courteous and lonely character seems a perfect match for a woman who has lost her bearing in the world. As the movie unravels, however, so too do Agnes and Peter’s mental states as paranoia and delusion set in and the sane aspects of Agnes’s personality are repressed under Peter’s influence.

If Bug is a film about sanity hanging in the balance, then Killer Joe is a work which focuses on the morality of characters not too dissimilar to the pair’s first collaboration. The setting of the film is contained mostly in the trailer park home of a family who belong to the fringes of society, not far from the motel room of Bug. Polarity is once again the issue which is played out in the characters as we see good people doing bad things due to the malevolent influence of a powerful agent. In this case he comes in form of Joe (McConaughey), a detective who also moonlights as a contract killer: polarity personified. After hiring Joe to kill his neglectful mother in order to pay back some drug dealers, Chris Smith (Hirsh) and his family are forced to play by Joe’s rules, whose power over them strengthens to an unbelievable extent as the film continues. Letts described Joe as having ‘a strong moral code’ which, ‘as bent as it is’[2], draws the fractured people in society toward him and under his control. Their ability to relate to any goodness in him betrays them as his grip on them allows him to display his cruelty with all the more vivacity towards the end of the film.

For Chris’s family, and for Agnes, it is their inability to fit into society which forces them to seek help in those who, unlike themselves, have conviction. This conviction, for Friedkin and Letts, is not necessarily good and so leads each film towards an intense crescendo similar to that of a Jacobean tragedy. In her 1926 essay ‘The Cinema’, Virginia Woolf described the primitiveness of a cinema which ‘endow[ed] one man with the attributes of the race.’[3] It would seem that these two collaborators want to dismantle such generalisations before our eyes, a process which viscerally shocks the audience. With each film Friedkin accomplishes a sense of claustrophobia which suits the paranoia of Bug and the inescapable cruelty of Killer Joe perfectly. In Letts, this director has found a writer who creates characters existing on the fringes of society, characters who are believable due to their fractured, and therefore human nature.

Hollywood has long been chastised for presenting their audiences with stock characters, the archetypes of good conquering over the archetypes of bad. In the collaborations of Friedkin and Letts, we see this battle of good and bad take place within individual characters set amongst the backdrop of a world which appears gritty and frighteningly real. It is this world which has been dexterously transposed from stage to screen, leaving the audience to transpose such characters into the real world or, indeed, to find such polarity in themselves.

[1] William Friedkin, Bug (Lions Gate Films, 2006).

[2] Interview with William Friedkin and Tracy Letts at Toronto International Film Festival (2012) <http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/killer-joe/rcd-tiff-interview-william-friedkin-and-tracy-letts> [accessed 14 July 2012]

[3] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Cinema’ (1926) <http://www.woolfonline.com/?q=essays/cinema/full> [accessed 14 July 2012]

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