Thursday, June 03, 2010

Review - The Killer Inside Me

Every discussion about Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me seems to centre on the film's violence, so perhaps I should start there before broadening my scope to discuss the film that surrounds it, a significant portion of the picture that some people seem to have forgotten exists. There are two key scenes of violence in the film, and both involve the protagonist Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) beating a female victim senseless. In the first, he reduces a once-beautiful woman's face to a bloody mess with his gloved fist, while the second sees him felling a female character with a single brutal punch to the stomach, and standing by as her body twitches in agony and shock, before all life finally drains from it. Ever since The Killer Inside Me premiered at Sundance, people have fixated on these incidents, they have dominated reviews and interviews, and they have drawn comparisons with films as notorious as Irreversible. That, I would suggest, is exactly how Jim Thompson would have wanted it.

Thompson's The Killer Inside Me was published in 1952, and over half a century on it is still a shocking, compelling and unforgettable read. The author places us directly inside the mind of a sociopath, although Lou Ford, the seemingly upstanding sheriff in a small American town, keeps his murderous impulses carefully concealed beneath a bland, genial exterior. Casey Affleck, who plays the lead role, has already shown us how brilliantly he can display the ambiguous motives and duplicitous nature of an unlikely killer with his extraordinary performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and he is magnificent as Thompson's disturbed antihero. He uses his boyish good looks, lazy drawl and crooked smile to project an image of a perfect lawman for a small 50's American town. "I've known you since you was knee-high to a grasshopper," Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower) tells Ford, "and I know you've never done anything wrong."

Lou Ford's wrongdoing begins when he starts a relationship with prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba). He has been sent to run her out of town but the pair are soon enjoying kinky sex and making plans for a future together, although he quickly ensures she won't be going anywhere. Thompson's book filtered its events through the warped mind of Lou Ford, with him acting as a seductive but wholly unreliable narrator, and Winterbottom gives his film the same skewed perspective. Even as he beats Joyce to a pulp, she continues to profess her love for him between blows, and throughout the film we are never allowed to be fully confident in the veracity of what we're seeing. This slant on Ford's violent acts is perhaps part of why they are so hard to stomach. The second murder of Ford's sweetheart Amy (Kate Hudson, doing her best work in a decade) is not explicitly violent compared to much of what we see in cinemas today – it consists of one punch and one kick – but the force of the impact and the fact that we experience it from the killer's point of view is what gives these scenes their disturbing edge. The director refuses to look away during these sequences, and he holds his gaze on Amy's slowly dying body for as long as Ford does.

On the whole, Winterbottom's handling of The Killer Inside Me is most impressive. This is a director with no signature style, one who can adapt his approach to suit whatever material he turns his hand to, and here he does all he can to bring the source material to the screen intact. His direction is unfussy and unobtrusive but graced with smart touches, with Marcel Zyskind's glossy cinematography and the eclectic soundtrack choices providing an effective contrast with the bleak darkness of the story. The tone of the film veers from the horrific to the darkly comic via the overblown, and Winterbottom follows that meandering path with confidence, only occasionally slipping in his judgement. He struggles most visibly in the final third, when his absolute fidelity to the written word threatens to backfire. Bill Pullman plays Billy Boy Walker exactly as written by Thompson, but his scenery-chewin', tobacco-spittin' cameo struck me as jarring, unconvincing and unbalancing for the film. It's the kind of thing that works so much better on the page than the screen.

The devotion shown by Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran to the novel is ultimately The Killer Inside Me's trump card, however. Not only have they captured the details of Thompson's narrative, but they have captured something far trickier to nail down – the author's style and spirit. The film is pure pulp with a pitch-black heart, and the conviction shown by all involved gives it a weight and potency that is bracing. The violence will remain an insurmountable hurdle for some, and that's understandable, but the filmmakers were absolutely right to film these scenes with the faithfulness and forthrightness that they have done. The violence in The Killer Inside Me is shocking, vivid and painful, and why on earth shouldn't it be? Such an unwavering refusal to compromise is the only way to do a writer like Jim Thompson justice.