FILM REVIEW: The Killer Inside Me (2010)

The Killer Inside Me (USA, 2010)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty

Michael Winterbottom’s career is one of complete polar opposites. On the one hand, we have 24 Hour Party People, the definitive document of 1980s Manchester; A Mighty Heart, which features a career-best turn from Angelina Jolie; and A Cock and Bull Story, a truly postmodernist film which manages to be self-reflexive without ever being self-obsessed. On the other hand, we have The Shock Doctrine, which is preachy, and 9 Songs, which is a dull one-trick pony populated with navel-gazers.

Because Winterbottom makes films so quickly, you’re never quite sure which side of him you’re going to get. The Killer Inside Me is a middling work, with neither the innovation nor the irritation of his previous films. For all its strengths, there are many big problems with this Jim Thompson adaptation, which makes it a draining experience to watch.The controversial portrayal of violence in The Killer Inside Me has dogged the film since it first premiered at Sundance. As was the case with Irreversible and many other violent films before it, the actual nature, extent and purpose of the violence seems to have gotten lost in a more general debate about whether screen violence (specifically towards women) is ever acceptable. The Killer Inside Me has earned a reputation for being incredibly and incessantly violent, when in reality the violence is only a small part of both the story and viewing experience.

The issue of the violence can be broken down into two subsidiary issues, namely: whether the depiction of such acts glamorise violence, and whether the nature of said violence towards women make the film misogynist. On the first issue, it is clear that the film does not glamorise violence. The consequences of Lou Ford’s punches and beatings are depicted with brutal realism, and the camera focuses on the harm done with the intention of deterring an audience rather than revelling in pain and suffering. We may empathise to some extent with Affleck, insofar as we want to understand his motivations. But there is a strong difference between empathy and sympathy, and at no point does the film condone his actions.Whether or not the film is misogynistic is a little more complicated. On the one hand, neither of the female characters are particularly intelligent or ‘respectable’: one is a whore, the other is a schoolteacher, although we see no evidence of this. The fact that Winterbottom cast Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson (whose looks outweigh their acting abilities) adds weight to the theory that these characters are deliberately underwritten.

But as before, the answer lies in our emotional response. James Ferman, former Head Censor of the BBFC, was once pressed over his decision not to cut a scene in Bad Lieutenant in which Harvey Keitel hideously abuses two women in a car. Ferman replied that the scene was left in because it was so repulsive that no-one could possibly find it arousing. The Killer Inside Me operates on the same principles: we do not delight in Jessica Alba being spanked, and we don’t cheer Affleck on when he punches Kate Hudson in the stomach. The film does not hate women; it finds violence towards women repulsive, and demonstrates this in such a way that we quickly agree.With that cleared up, we can now examine the value of the film as an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s book. And purely on a visual level, it’s pretty good. As in his previous noir offering, Code 46, Winterbottom demonstrates he has what can only be described as an eye for genre. The film is lit and structured in a way which conveys the pulpy, trashy nature of its subject matter and the language Thompson employs. It doesn’t take long to feel like you know this small American town like the back of your hand.Winterbottom also does a good job with the music, resisting the temptation to simply trawl through the latest blues compilation and slap it over every scene without dialogue. There is a running motif of Lou Ford playing the opening of a blues song on the piano, which gives us some clue as to the sensitive sense of his character. If nothing else it’s a savagely ironic contrast to his violent outbursts, which are as periodic and tragic as the songs.

What the film doesn’t manage to do, however, is to properly explain or give weight to the drama unfolding. The pulp nature of the novel means that we are familiar with many of the stock characters and the way in which they talk. But it is unclear as to whether or not Winterbottom believes we can guess the plot developments based upon this familiarity. Those who are not familiar with Thompson may sit there feeling they have seen this story before, only with better storytelling and clearer intentions.The closest point of comparison is American Psycho, since both are heavily flawed adaptations of novels with complex central characters. American Psycho succeeds as a study of a time period, exaggerating 1980s greed through right-on-the-money satire, a few buckets of blood. But for all the talent of Christian Bale, Patrick Bateman remains largely impenetrable; because we struggle to identify with him, we find it hard to deconstruct him and piece together elements of his psychosis.
Both Lou Ford and Patrick Bateman are characters whose unremarkable, fastidious surfaces types hides unspeakable impulses. But though Casey Affleck makes the character rounded and believable, there is still a feeling of impenetrable distance between us and him, something which makes his actions seem motiveless or ridiculous. There is very little in the film about Ford living in the shadow of his father, or about what could have caused him to become a psychopath; we know he committed a crime in the past, but there is no clue as to his motivation.

Because Ford is so hard to get a handle on, and so brutally straightforward in his actions, our response to him is ambivalent. Sometimes we are genuinely moved or shocked by his actions or predicament; other times we are frustrated by how generic the conversations seem or by a couple of plot developments. Both are encapsulated in the final scene, in which Joyce Lakeland returns to Lou’s arms, before he kills her and they both burn to death in his home which he had doused in petrol.On the one hand, it seems absurd that Bill Pullman’s character would be able to get Lou out of the asylum, or that if Joyce did ‘come back from the dead’ that she would run straight into Lou’s arms Lou. Even with the film’s exploration of sadomasochism, it seems farfetched that she would be so forgiving. On the other hand, the image of Lou burning to death with the women he ever really loved is a poignant and tragic one. Not only has he brought about his own destruction, but his final actions sum up his schizophrenic impulses: he expresses his love for Joyce, before stabbing her and being shot by police.The Killer Inside Me is a frustrating and deeply flawed adaptation. American Psycho, for all its own problems, is a better examination of psychosis bubbling beneath the surface. And it does feel in places like Winterbottom soft-pedalling and not getting to grips with the material. As a visual statement, however, it is very evocative of its period and genre, and Casey Affleck is an interesting screen presence. It’s a decent examination of psychotic violence which deserves precious little of its hype.

Rating: 3/5
Verdict: Awkward but visually interesting


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