A great deal has been made of the unrestrained violence in Michael Winterbottom’s languid, dusky pulp thriller The Killer Inside Me, the English director’s bold adaption of Jim Thompson’s 1952 crime novel of the same name. And with very good reason: its ferocity is shocking.
Throughout, brutality and sadism are churning just below the surface, threatening to shatter the eerie calm, to twist the affability and easy-going climate of its small town languor into a gnarled and hateful confusion, always daring us to look away. And when it does explode, inevitably, it is unrepentant and repulsive, unquestionably grotesque.
It is hugely problematic but it is fundamental, too. It is the essence of the film; the beating pulse of the narrative. Diminish it and the film collapses. It has helped make it one of the most controversial and challenging of this or any year, but it also makes it one of the most important.
Jim Thompson’s novels were, invariably, disturbing trips into the minds of intelligent psychopaths. Though scruffy and childish at times his writing could be beguiling nonetheless, and was certainly deemed “cinematic” enough to attract Hollywood producers several times in the latter half of the last century.
Yet past adaptations have always taken a step back, baulked at the true perversity of the author’s imagination or, worse still, fluffed their lines. Even Sam Peckinpah, a hard-bitten filmmaker and man not known for his modesty or reserve, seems only reluctantly committed to the writer’s brutality in The Getaway (1972). Killer… is different.
Casey Affleck, continuing in the same vein as his sinister portrayal of Bob Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is the reptilian, murderous small town deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, a man with a tortured morality and a contemptuous indifference. Part smiling, part sneering, teasing, eyes glazed and half closed, crawling listlessly in the long grass of self-righteousness, he dispenses his own perverted form of justice with flying fists, boots and a wicked line in evasion. He provokes and taunts.
He punches his lover Joyce (Jessica Alba) into a cleaved and scrambled pulp while whimpering his love for her as she, gargling pathetically through a mouthful of bone and blood, asks why. He kicks another, Amy (Kate Hudson) until she bleeds and pisses across his kitchen floor, then pulls her skirt over her head (to both cover and expose her simultaneously – a duel act of humiliation and preservation) moves casually to read the newspaper while she lies dying, before rising to swing his foot into her abdomen once more – a sickening, spiteful coup de grace, self-hatred mixed with sexual loathing, a violent act born, perhaps, out of the S&M enjoyed in the bedroom but which he has become unable to constrain.
He eludes, skulks, denies and deceives; he is charming and lifeless in the same breath, a toxic ferment of provincial bonhomie, backslapping charisma and quiet malevolence. Lou Ford is a genuinely gruesome character and this is indisputably his film. He saturates it.
But where does the violence leave us? It is true that the more brutal acts (if brutality can be measured comparatively) are meted out to women. Men are killed in, by comparison, more merciful ways or take their own lives as a consequence of Ford’s slippery manoeuvrings. But accusations of misogyny or glamourisation feel hard to pin down because unlike, say, the cartoonish carnage of Tarantino or some Asian Extreme cinema, this is all so very, very real.
Winterbottom has created a stomach-turning visual realization of Thompson’s torrid world and does so without recourse to special effects or theatricality. So one could argue, even, that he has acted with considerable restraint, working within the very clear limits of realism.
Pragmatism does not negate authorial responsibility, of course, or we would be on very thin-ice indeed, but in truth the film is not the source text and in translating the violence from page to screen with such honesty Winterbottom has simply stayed true to the novel. It is upsetting, it is very difficult to watch and it is hard to say, unequivocally, what he intended with such truthfulness, but anything less would be a negation of that directorial responsibility and a denial of Thompson’s intent.
Perhaps, though, the debate over meaning is more critical self-indulgence because The Killer Inside Me is also, or rather is first, a splendid piece of filmmaking. It is beautifully shot – Michael Zyskinds’ cinematography is wonderfully polished and understated – the narrative is perfectly balanced and the acting superb.
Its delicate touches are as beautiful as the violence is horrifying and it has been some time since I have watched a film in which the atmosphere – the heat, the dust, the unhurried pace – feels so tangible. Winterbottom may have acted as a premeditated provocateur and, despite the somewhat bemused nature of many of his publicity interviews, relished his role in doing so. But with Killer… he has proven himself to be, once again, a frighteningly rare, talented and eclectic filmmaker.