Punching above its weight

Thwak! It’s taken me a few weeks to catch up with Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Killer Inside Me, and there’s a reason for this. I kept putting it off. On a couple of occasions I was all set to go and see it at the Curzon, but talked myself out of it on the day, as I wasn’t “in the mood.” The mood I imagined I would have to be in was one in which I felt like seeing women being graphically beaten up. Like me, I guess you’ll have read all about Winterbottom’s decision to show us two women being beaten up, rather than imply it, or have it happen offscreen, or disguise it with clever editing. He chose this fairly sensational approach for entirely sound artistic and political reasons: because to do the opposite and to glamorise violence, whether against women or otherwise, which is what Hollywood routinely does, is irresponsible and fainthearted. Michael Winterbottom is a director it’s impossible not to admire: for his sheer workrate, for one thing, and for the glee and skill with which he attacks any number of genres: period drama, sci-fi, comedy, period comedy, hardcore porn mixed with concert movie, war movie, docu-drama, docu-mentary. I interviewed him once: he’s a smart man. And only 49. Why wouldn’t he have a crack at a pulp noir, based on a 1952 Jim Thompson novel? And why wouldn’t he attempt something different?

Unfortunately, the thing that he has done differently from any number of other pulp noirs, is to show two women being graphically beaten up, one more horrifically than the other, but both still pretty shocking. It’s not Winterbottom’s fault that the violence is all that the media has been fixated upon since The Killer Inside Me‘s premiere at Sundance, but he certainly knew he was taking a risk when he decided to remain true to the book – or so I understand, not having read it, or any other pulp novel – and put what was on the page on the screen. The first of the two violent beatings is the one that’s hard to watch, the one that Rachel Cooke in the Observer described as “sickeningly protracted” and in which “facial bones crunch repeatedly to the sound of classical music,” leading her to feel “so queasy” she “had to go and stand outside”; the same scene that caused a female audience member at Sundance to stand up at a Q&A and proclaim, “I don’t understand how Sundance could book this movie! How dare you? How dare Sundance?”

Let’s put this scene into context. The film is about a psychopath who also happens to be a 29-year-old West Texas deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, played with icy and disturbing insouciance and good manners by Casey Affleck, who is better at acting than Ben Affleck. As with many previous fictional killers, and factual ones, he manages to keep up appearances and hold down a job, but this outer layer of respectability cracks before our eyes. Sent out into the sticks to evict a prostitute, played by The Fantastic Four:Rise Of The Silver Surfer’s Jessica Alba, he falls into a consensual and even loving sado-masochistic relationship with her, and then hatches an evil, self-serving, self-destructive plan to use her, and abuse her, in the cause of a fairly labyrinthine subplot about revenge, blackmail and unions. This is where the Bad Scene comes in. Without giving anything more about the plot away, he beats her half to death, punching her repeatedly in her beautiful face until she is unrecognisable, all the while telling her he’s sorry and that he loves her. (The later scene of psychopathic misogyny involves another woman, played by Kate Hudson, who is his girlfriend and another seemingly willing partner in sado-masochistic bedroom antics. It’s not as bloody, but it’s no less upsetting and humiliating.)

We’re talking about just two scenes in a two-hour movie. In the service of the story, they illustrate that Lou Ford wants to destroy everything he loves. He is filled with a self-loathing that manifests itself through acts of cold, calculating violence. He commits acts of violence towards male characters, too, but these are not shown, or not shown in any detail. Winterbottom insists that this is true to the book. He shows what Thompson described. But reading and seeing are very different things. When Mary Harron made American Psycho for the screen – easily the most disgusting book I have ever read – she showed almost none of the violence depicted by Bret Easton Ellis. It was too revolting to show. It was revolting enough to imagine. This violence, interestingly, was also largely aimed at women. But American Psycho was a satire. The film was even more of one, teasing from the text more comedy than I picked up on when reading it.

The scenes of violence in The Killer Inside Me tell us important things about the state of Lou Ford’s damaged and deteriorating mind. He’s pretty unhinged already; he’s descending into madness; he’s convinced he can get away with anything, due to his badge and his reputation. In that sense they are justified. However, my feeling is this: had we heard him punching Jessica Alba, or had the scene faded out, or had he punched her while she was out of shot – just as Kathy Burke was out of shot when Ray Winstone decisively beat her in Nil By Mouth – the narrative effect would have been the same. (He was doing a bad thing for reasons of personal interest and to a woman who loved him.) We might not even be talking about the film. I might not be blogging about it and adding to the chatter. It might have passed without much comment at Sundance and at Berlin, and it might have arrived on our screens celebrated only for being the latest film by a talented British director, and his first shot in America. but instead we’re all talking about the sickening violence and the bloodied pulp that they made Jessica Alba’s face look like.

These two scenes unbalance the film. When, in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, Charlotte Gainsbourg mutilates herself – again, one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen on film – it acts as a climax to an already out-of-control story, which is itself almost a fantasy. It’s revolting. It’s graphic. It’s memorable. But, to my mind, it’s necessary. The frankness of the violence in The Killer Inside Me isn’t necessary. It is theoretically justified (hey, it’s in the book), but by staging it in full view, it strays into exploitation. You might easily argue that showing an actor’s erect penis ejaculating in Nine Songs also strayed into exploitation. (Not of the actor, but into a type of cinema that is exploitative.) Again, it had everyone talking. But again, it unbalanced the film. The Killer Inside Me is not a film about domestic violence. It is a film about a nutcase doing bad things. These bad things are kind of explained by some flashbacks, but they are still bad things that are bad even if you tell someone about them. My own view is that you didn’t need to show the first beating in such candid and unflinching detail. What more does it tell us by being in full view? Would we imagine he was only giving her a friendly slap if we hadn’t seen the punches?

It has plenty going for it, this film. The performances are exceptional – Affleck, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Tom Bower, Simon Baker, a show-stealing cameo from Bill Pullman – and the atmosphere is evocative and unnerving. And the story, which has all the hallmarks of a classic noir – albeit one in which the femmes aren’t fatale in the traditional sense – unfolds at a languid but involving pace. I would have gone to see it anyway. And possibly sooner. But it’s not worth this much fuss, or that many column inches.

Or is it?

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2 thoughts on “Punching above its weight

  1. I love Thompsons books. But it’s been a while since I read this, so I’ll admit this is not from my memory but a commentator elsewhere. In actual fact Ford describes what he’s doing as feeling like punching a watermelon. So, Thompson actually engages metaphor to get across the violence of this (however slightly). Something that’s totally absent from Winterbottom’s take on it.

    To my mind, this makes his approach considerably more cynical than just being ‘true’ to the book.

    Which is a shame, because this could’ve been on a par with LA Confidential (if we ignore the fact that Thompson couldn’t finish his stories for toffee).

  2. I agree with Tony – by crashing in and showing us what Thompson meant, Winterbottom fails to dramatise what he actually wrote.

    He goes for literalism instead, like a friend of mine who was convinced that a better title than PRICK UP YOUR EARS would have been PRICK UP YOUR ARSE. No amount of argument would convince him otherwise.

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