Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 16 June 2010
Source IFC Films 35mm print
Categories The 2010 Independent Film Festival Boston
It was an ominous start for a screening. Before director Michael Winterbottom’s newest feature The Killer Inside Me unspooled at IFFB, festival representatives appeared and issued a warning about the level of violence in the movie. (A small warning also appeared in the festival’s printed program.) This marked the first time that such a warning was issued at a festival that has screened the likes of last year’s crushingly violent Bronson without comment. Framed by the old-school facades and heavy curtains of the Somerville Theatre’s largest and most beautiful auditorium, the scene resembled nothing so much as the opening moments of James Whale’s Frankenstein, when a soft-spoken stranger steps across a stage and suggests that the audience members brace themselves—or leave. (“I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you.”) Naturally, your first question will be whether the warning was warranted. The answer is yes: even with due warning, The Killer Inside Me is nauseatingly brutal, and probably impossible for some viewers to sit through.
One could argue that Winterbottom is simply following the letter of his source material, Jim Thompson’s deeply disturbing 1952 novel of the same name, which was filmed once before in the seventies. The novel’s first person narrator, Lou Ford, is a small town deputy sheriff in Texas who conceals his murderous impulses beneath a charming exterior. (Or at least, he thinks he does. At least for a while.) Ford explicitly describes his crimes in the book, in savage passages such as this one:
I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once. She slumped down, her knees bent under her, her head hanging limp; and then, slowly, an inch at a time, she pushed herself up again… I brought an uppercut up from the floor. There was a sharp cr-aack! and her whole body shot upward, and came down in a heap. And that time it stayed down.
Winterbottom gives us all of this, in full color, thirty feet high. A beautiful young actress gets her head most convincingly caved in. The scene has caused walkouts, and coupled with another sustained instance of violence against a female character (the men die comparatively quickly), it has fueled some intense negative reactions to the film. (At Sundance, the first question during the Q&A session for The Killer Inside Me was reportedly something along the lines of “How dare you?”) And if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I would have been deeply disturbed if viewers hadn’t questioned the in-your-face misogyny of The Killer Inside Me’s most violent set pieces.
At the same time, while it would be easy to condemn The Killer Inside Me as trash, that would deny the complicated nature of the film. Winterbottom is a gifted filmmaker who has displayed remarkable sensitivity in works like 1998’s Wonderland, a series of interconnected vignettes about ordinary Londoners. He is also known for giving conventional source material an unconventional spin—opening up the world of rock biopics with 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and giving literary adaptations a good goosing by taking a crack at Tristram Shandy in 2005. One has to wonder, first and foremost, what would draw him to Thompson’s novel in first place.
One imagines that he jumped at the challenge of bringing this story to the screen, a story that was, in the words of Thompson fan Stanley Kubrick, “Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” Thompson’s book is a headfirst dive into the mind of a serial killer, an unreliable narrator who has nothing to offer us but his own skewed perceptions. By the end of the story, even Lou Ford knows that he’s more than a bit—off. We are given no reason to trust Ford’s characterizations of anyone in the story, least of all his victims. Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran hew closely to Thompson’s text, including voice-over narration from Ford and a hallucinatory sequence in a psychiatric ward. Winterbottom and Curran are trying to give us Ford’s side of the story; the director has even said as much when called on to defend his film. So yes, one can convincingly argue that the characters played by Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, thinly drawn women who seem to exist only to be sexualized or brutalized (or both at once), are not meant to be real women at all, just figments of Ford’s sick imagination, loosely based on the real people that he destroys. In the famous opening sequence of Halloween, John Carpenter literally slips the killer’s mask over the audience’s eyes and makes them see what he sees. Figuratively, Winterbottom has done something along those same lines here.
Does this mean that the movie is entirely excused? Is the scene, for example, when the camera leers over a woman who coos, “I like it when you hurt me,” rendered harmless because the audience is understood to be seeing the world through the serial killer equivalent of beer goggles? Maybe not. Perhaps Winterbottom is not to blame if audiences miss his cues regarding the film’s contorted sense of reality, and it reflects poorly on the state of our culture, and not on Winterbottom, that there are still plenty of films out there echoing Lou Ford’s vicious attitudes without acknowledging them as sick. But while getting inside a murderer’s head no doubt intrigued Winterbottom from a narrative standpoint; it’s still worth asking why he (and we) would want to do so. With Halloween, John Carpenter wants to scare us. With his novel, Jim Thompson does a good job of doing the same, offering us a chance to take a ride with a madman at the wheel and finding us oddly compelled to take it. But Thompson’s depiction of psychological disturbance comes up against a familiar wall in the genre: any attempt to explain it falls flat. Of course it does. Stories about serial killers – Winterbottom’s Thompson adaptation included – can only plumb so deep before they ask us to reckon with the fact that we can’t understand them, ask us to stare something very unpleasant in the face and come back without any real answers. Viewers will have to decide for themselves whether the traumas of The Killer Inside Me are worth it.
And for some viewers, maybe they are. There are some solid reasons to see this movie, starting with Casey Affleck’s performance in the role of Lou Ford. There’s something boyish about Affleck’s voice, and something angelic about his face, and that makes his intentionally incongruous casting here all the more chilling. A sneering menace simmers just underneath his friendly exterior: you buy him as a murderer, but you can also imagine him getting away with it. It’s a spellbinding performance that isn’t easily forgotten.
Winterbottom has also crafted a seductively atmospheric film, one that evokes the bloody, gritty likes of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men. For a film that can be so unabashedly ugly, it manages to be beautifully shot. It also vividly evokes its time and place without going needlessly over-the-top with either (no mean feat when we’re talking about Texas in the 1950s). It may have some B-movie antecedents, but The Killer Inside Me has the look and feel of an A picture. It’s the sort of movie that wants to stretch across a big screen and knows how to fill it. Winterbottom might be offering us snapshots from hell, but he knows how to frame them.
So The Killer Inside Me is not a shoddily made film. It is not a dumb film and it was not made with evil intentions. But it is, by design and perhaps also by accident, a very, very troubling film. Beyond that first question, about whether the warning about the violence was warranted, I don’t have any short answers about The Killer Inside Me. At the end of each screening at IFFB, audience members are asked to complete a ballot by tearing through a number to rate the film: one is the lowest rating; five is the highest. When the lights came up on The Killer Inside Me, the most honest assessment that I could come up with was to throw my ballot away untouched.
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