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American Independents

The Killer Inside Me (UK/US 2010)

Lou (Casey Affleck) and Amy (Kate Hudson) in a scene that might have been The Last Picture Show

The release of this film made me think of that phrase often used about weddings and funerals in Michael Winterbottom’s native Lancashire – “there was a lot said”. Unfortunately, most of what was said by general commentators in the media focused on the charge of misogyny and gratuitous violence which first arose at Sundance and has dogged the film ever since. The result is that some of the audience who might appreciate the film have chosen not to see it.

But is there anything worthwhile to say about the film as a film and an example of cinematic art? I wouldn’t argue that it is a particularly outstanding film, but it is a good example of the work of a significant team of filmmakers. I’m not going to focus specifically on the violence in the film – I was one of those viewers aware of what would happen, so I just covered my eyes and didn’t watch the two offending scenes when the most brutal moments came. I’m still not sure what I think about these scenes that I heard rather than saw, but I don’t think I missed anything since the brutality was signified very effectively through the sound effects. On the other hand, I’m not going to argue against the director’s decision to include them as part of his presentation of the narrative. Rona is going to offer her thoughts on this.

Plot

For anyone who hasn’t read about the plot of the film, The Killer Inside Me is a close adaptation of a crime novel by one of the most ‘hardboiled’ of American pulp writers, Jim Thompson. The title refers to a young sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town who commits a series of murders – perhaps rationally to protect himself, perhaps not. As the title suggests, there is a mis-match between the young man’s outward demeanour and what is going on inside his head. This is a classic film noir narrative, set in the early 1950s (which in Hollywood marked the most vicious period of the noir crime film).

Commentary

What makes the film interesting initially is that it is the work of one of the two most prolific and celebrated production teams in British Cinema – here tackling a completely American property for the first time (even if it is actually their third independent US production). Revolution Films, the company set up by producer Andrew Eaton and director Michael Winterbottom, has produced films at an astonishing rate since the mid 1990s with sixteen features (including one documentary) in sixteen years. Many of these films have featured at Cannes, Berlin, San Sebastian etc. winning a number of prizes. Only Ken Loach with Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty comes anywhere near this record. Yet Loach wins out because his films win bigger prizes and usually much bigger audiences. It’s a tribute to Andrew Eaton’s producer skills that Revolution’s lack of commercial success doesn’t seem to prevent them from financing the next production. Presumably there is enough income from ‘ancillary’ sales to balance the books.

I think that there are two reasons why Revolution Films don’t make it with audiences and with mainstream reviewers. The first is that Winterbottom’s choice of subject matter combined with rigorous aesthetic choices and narrative experiments results in films either dogged by controversy or lacking in immediate mainstream appeal. I offer you the film under discussion here alongside A Mighty Heart and 9 Songs on the one hand and films like Genova or Code 46 on the other. So, the films don’t hit big in the multiplex – but if they win festival prizes why don’t they work in the arthouses? Arthouse audiences are often quite conservative in the sense that they like to know what they are getting and Winterbottom confounds easy ideas about auteurs who make the same film over and over. Instead he makes melodramas, postmodern comedies, science fiction, romantic comedy, realist thrillers, westerns, literary adaptations – no film is like the last one and each is also likely to be stylistically different.

I ought to put my cards on the table. For me, Wonderland (UK 1999) was the best British film of the 1990s and The Claim (UK/Canada/France 2000) the most ambitious and best realised production of the past twenty years (well, you try adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge as a gold-rush western and shooting it in an Albertan winter). I’ve seen everything since 1994 apart from 9 Songs (UK 2004) and every one of the films has been interesting in different ways. Overall, however, I’d say that the more controversial and more ‘popular’ subjects have been less interesting than the left-field ones. And that is possibly my problem with The Killer Inside Me.

Winterbottom has said that his main aim was to create a ‘literal’ adaptation of the novel. I think he felt that Thompson had created a unique perspective on crime – from within the mind of the killer. Certainly the narrative is constructed with Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) at its centre and we only see other characters when they meet Lou. The two obvious points to make here are that Lou is the classic ‘unreliable narrator’ and we have no way of knowing how much of what we see is actually fantasy and secondly that this strategy allows Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran to argue that any charges of misogyny should be directed towards the fictional character (and, presumably, Jim Thompson). The creation of an unreliable narrator seems to me to be a valid artistic decision. The second point is more problematic. Thompson is a complex figure as a writer and according to his wife Alberta was . . . “a gentle sensitive man who loved animals and was of course a devoted husband and father” (quoted by Nick Kimberley in the introduction to a compendium of Thompson’s novels, Zomba Books, London 1983). He was writing at a specific moment in American popular culture and from a specific perspective as a struggling pulp writer. The question Winterbottom doesn’t seem to have answered is why adapt the novel now and why feign surprise that many will find the film offensive?

There is undoubtedly a case to be made against Revolution for simply seeking out controversial projects or perhaps creating a self-image such that for productions like A Mighty Heart Winterbottom seems like the most straightforward choice of director. It’s also worth noting that the previous Revolution Films production was the Red Riding Trilogy for Channel 4. Winterbottom wasn’t directly involved with that production as far as I know, but Andrew Eaton certainly was. But I don’t really want to explore Revolution’s history here. Instead I’ll focus on two issues: the aesthetics of the film and its status as film noir.

Winterbottom and aesthetic choices

What you get in a Michael Winterbottom film is something that looks and feels different. That’s obvious in the credit sequence of most of Revolution’s films and here there is some lovely use of typography with a strong country soundtrack. From then on, Winterbottom and his regular cinematographer Marcel Zyskind create very cold and clean images of the Texas oilfields (with some shooting in Oklahoma). If the intention was to look for a ‘Thompson aesthetic’ – the look of Hud, The Last Picture Show, Written on the Wind etc. The print I saw was digital which enhanced the feel of bleakness. Other than this textural quality, I didn’t notice the camerawork and colour that much – because the narrative is so gripping and the plot moves forward so quickly (as in the novel). (I can’t believe the IMDB posters who find the film ‘boring’ or who don’t see any ‘characterisation’.)

The textural feel is supported by the excellent costume design and casting choices. I thought at first that Joyce and Amy were just too beautiful for a small town prostitute and a schoolteacher, but the casting is consistent with Winterbottom’s aim to be ‘true’ to the novel.

Film noir

Now that I’ve read the novel, I’m tempted to think more about the genre repertoires and themes which the film explores. The Killer Inside Me qualifies as noir in a number of ways. Thompson is clearly a pulp writer – though none of his novels were made into films at the time. He did work on film and TV scripts later in the 1950s and 1960s – but mostly in other genres. Perhaps his crime novels were considered too violent? Or perhaps they were too far ahead of popular taste?

The violence towards women features in several noirs of the period. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame is disfigured by scalding coffee deliberately thrown by Lee Marvin’s violent thug. In Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a young woman is tortured to death. In both films, however, the extreme violence is offscreen (see the clips below – the end of the Kiss Me Deadly intro):

The ‘narration’ of The Killer Inside Me is in some ways similar to that of the William Holden character in Sunset Boulevard, but the theme of the film looks forward to later films such as Psycho. Thompson’s writing style shares with Winterbottom’s directorial style in impatience with spelling everything out. Audiences have to work hard to put together the plot information, but there are plenty of clues. Lou Ford is insane (though US audiences seem to have missed this in many cases). His behaviour is influenced by childhood trauma and he entertains himself with his father’s medical books (the soundtrack also offers us Mahler, Richard Strauss and Donizetti alongside Western Swing to represent Lou’s two worlds). The only elements in the book that don’t appear in the movie (unless I’ve already forgotten them!) are a visit to Lou’s house from a quack psychiatrist and Lou’s use of prescription drugs to pep up his sexual performance. Both of these could be part of 40s/50s noir but the childhood trauma seems like a relatively new reason for the injection of violence into the doomed life of the male protagonist. In earlier noirs, the trauma is often associated with wartime experience. The novel reveals that part of the reason for Lou’s aggression towards the DA Howard Hendricks is that Lou is fed up with hearing about Hendricks’ war experience and the shrapnel lodged in his body. Lou himself is 29, so at the time of the main US recruitment of young men to fight in 1944 he would have been 21. Why didn’t he enlist? Why too is there no sense of the Korean War or the mounting anti-Communist hysteria? Is this again because we are inside the head of an insane man – someone with a sickness that blots out the rest of the world?

Conclusion

I suspect that a closer examination of The Killer Inside Me will prompt some more thoughts when the DVD becomes available. Meanwhile Winterbottom and Eaton have a new project – Promised Land, exploring the Stern Gang, the notorious Jewish guerilla group that murdered several British soldiers and police officers (as well as ordinary Palestinians and two major diplomats) in Palestine in the 1940s before the 1948 war. That won’t be controversial in the US will it?

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The Killer Inside Me (UK/US 2010)

  1. There are difficulties with this film that are not easily explained away (I think) by making a determined link between the film and its source material. That said – I haven’t read the book. So, tentatively in view of this fact, I would still argue that the generally accepted difference between novelistic and filmic imagination applies here. This is not just an argument about the concrete nature of film images compared to the (alleged) lesser impact of the written word. Easton-Ellis’s American Psycho is an example (for me) that having descriptions of violence in your head, and being inside the mind of the killer can be as unpleasant as watching a movie. The film adaptation of that novel was clearer than Killer in its satirical tone and its implicit critique of a society run by surfaces. It’s somehow more believable that the murders could all be in Patrick Bateman’s psychotic head – an ultimate expression that nothing he does has any meaning. Meanings and messages are problematic in relation to Winterbottom’s film; I feel there is a clear discourse ascribing something slightly bourgeois to wanting that thematic certainty I described above. Stylistically, the film is adept and absorbingly true within its own fictional, noirish world. The violence is shocking – is represented more brutally and therefore is seen as more realistic than film violence often is. Is it preferable to see that reality (as Winterbottom argues) rather than the glamorised versions we might be used to? The effect is disturbing enough – for me, it mimicked an experience of being in the company of an abuser for two hours. Charming and manipulative superficially – but who has anger waiting to be expressed at the world around him, easily expressed onto those who are weaker and who have trusted him. Did I need (thematically) to see him pummel Jessica Alba’s face to understand the level of danger he represents and the betrayal committed? I’m still not sure. Comparing it to Kathryn Bigelow’s science-fiction film Strange Days, (spoiler here) where the villain effects a particularly nasty rape and murder on a fleeing witness – and through the means of virtual reality forces her to watch her own fear at the attack, to heighten his own pleasure in it. People walked out of that on its release and the sequence was condemned. However, the villain’s use of virtual reality was a deliberate filmic device to comment on the pleasures of watching violence – used to discomfort the cinema audience and make them conscious that, yes, you watch fear regularly as some form of release/pleasure. Winterbottom didn’t ask or demand anything, left the reading of the protagonist entirely open, left you morally alone in the cinema (and by his public interviews). Maybe that’s a greater challenge right there. In a current mood in the U.K. that’s shaken by the response to a recent set of shootings and the lionising of the perpetrator on Facebook – perhaps Killer says something more pertinent than I’d like to admit i.e. it’s showing me (whether Winterbottom intended it or not) how brutality is easily perpetrated, how violence can be created by mutual consent and that desperately demonising the killer doesn’t even begin to answer the whole question.

    Posted by Rona | July 25, 2010, 19:48
  2. Off the point a little, but germane to the idea that the events onscreen are an interior monologue by a psychopath, I wonder if the union boss character played by Elias Koteas is a figment of Ford’s imagination? There’s never anyone else around when they meet, usually off the beaten track, and his sole function appears to be to egg Ford on (thus enabling Ford to rationalise his psychopathy). I haven’t read the novel so I don’t know if he appears in it as a ‘real’ character or not – but this wouldn’t necessarily preclude Winterbottom and screenwriter from treating him differently.

    Posted by John | July 27, 2010, 14:09
    • The ‘labour leader’ Joseph Rothman appears in the novel twice in similar circumstances to his appearances in the film. These meetings are odd because they don’t have the same bearing on the plot as Lou Ford’s other encounters. You may be on to something.

      Posted by venicelion | July 27, 2010, 23:41

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