The Killer Inside Me

07 June 2010

The seemingly inexhaustible work rate of Michael Winterbottom accompanies his versatility. The former – eighteen films in 15 years with another completed and three more in development – perhaps makes the “hit and miss” assessment understandable. The latter – genres tackled include science fiction, docudrama, unsimulated sex-cum-concert film, adaptation of uniquely literary novel, etc. – makes the film-maker very difficult to pin down or categorise; in turn, it becomes very difficult to approach any of his films with a particular aesthetic or thematic preoccupation in mind. Indeed, he might be an “anti-auteur”.

Perhaps we ought not to be looking at the works but at the artist himself. In the June issue of Sight & Sound, in an effort to find some common thread between his films, Hannah McGill notes that Winterbottom's “back catalogue suggests a compulsive attraction to projects full of practical, ethical or creative obstacles”. What draws him to a particular project might be its “practical, ethical or creative” potentiality, as opposed to finding some direct relation in its material to certain political interests or intellectual pursuits.

With this in mind, we might find a specific investment from Winterbottom in his latest feature,
The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's noir novel. A first-person narrative about a small-town Texas deputy sheriff whose gentle public persona is a veil for a disturbingly murderous inner streak, the original work is noted for its particularly graphic depiction of violence. This time around, it seems, Winterbottom's practical, ethical and creative obstacle – and therefore purpose – is translating this violence to a cinematic version.

The plot: in 1950s west Texas, deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is sent by his superior Bob Maples (Tom Bower) to persuade prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) to leave town. When Ford instead becomes Joyce's lover, the pair devise a plan to hustle the town's powerful construction boss Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Meanwhile, union leader Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas) tells Ford that Conway was responsible for his brother's death years back. When Conway sends his own son with bribe money for Ford in order for the latter to get Joyce to leave town, Ford punches Joyce's face in, beating her almost to death, before killing Conway's son.

Haunted by flashbacks to both this murder and a childhood incident in which his foster brother found him raping a young girl, Ford delays suspicion by making it look – improbably – like Joyce and Conway's son killed each other. As a set of unforeseen circumstances escalates, Ford remains outwardly calm and quick-thinking to stay one step ahead of his lawmen colleagues. He proposes to his girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson); just as things begin to look rosy, however, an old face blackmails him. He agrees to pay, but at the arranged follow-up meeting, events turn murderous again.

That the story is so “dark”, so “hardboiled”, that the film itself is such a straight adaptation of a dark and hardboiled novel, seems to buy it a critical pass. The critical reception and assessment of the film seems to focus unavoidably on the controversy that has preceded its release. This controversy – on which I'll comment in a moment – is the point on which all discussion of the film hinges.
As a result, bar a Cinematical review from April, no serious examination of the film seems to have noted how silly its story often is. For all its matter-of-fact miserablism and humourlessness, The Killer Inside Me rings rather hollow and quite improbable.

At the end of the film's second reel, Jessica Alba gets her face beaten to a pulp. Regardless of style or approach, it's a disturbing scene, quite horrific. While objections to the violence itself might come down to one's previous exposure to such stuff, there does seem to be a lingering exploitative nastiness at work.

While Winterbottom does well to approach the film in unassuming, straightforward visual terms – it's not overly stylised, it might even feel contemporary at times – his aesthetic maturity is let down by an unironic investment in anonymous hysteria. Where there might have been a dynamic contradiction at work here, the whole thing feels strangely flat. Perhaps this is due to how messy and clunky the narrative is; it is probably more to do with its odd lack of characterisation.

The Killer Inside Me
has been described as a “character study”, as can often be fashionable with films and stories of this type. Beware: it's fast becoming – if it wasn't already – an industry shorthand for broody, introspective non-commitment.

Writing for Film4, Catherine Bray notes, “Lou is a polite, rather dull man, leading a highly conventional life, and if it weren't for that fact that he commits some atrocious crimes, there would be very little point in making a film about him. If we accept this, then his violence is what legitimises him as a subject.”

This, apparently, is what might have drawn Winterbottom to the character. But Bray is right to go on: “Violence being the thrust of the film, what does
The Killer Inside Me have to say about violence? Not as much as you might hope, is the answer.” The film is vacant of any moral or personal complexity. Its despairing tone is a result more of its sheer, stubborn hopelessness than its atmospheric rendering of a period Texas. A Kiss Me Deadly-style conclusion lends the work absurdity, but not a jot of seriousness.

No human – even one who kills “without motive” – is removed from material life. Winterbottom's protagonist (though Winterbottom would no doubt prefer us to say
Thompson's protagonist) is confusingly portrayed, not because he kills apparently without motive, but because there's no real interest in the world he lives in. The central conflict between his public persona and hidden, internal persona is superficial, mannerist.

Casey Affleck utilises the same physical movements and facial expressions as he did so effectively in
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but in that film there was a careful examination of and investment in character. Here, Lou Ford remains a deliberate enigma – brief flashbacks to his childhood border on the ridiculous, banal; more often they are simply odd and distracting, as ultimately gratuitous as the shot of Jessica Alba's obliterated face.

In her
Sight & Sound piece, Hannah McGill sparks up an interesting political element in the film. “The clash between Ford's public and private selves,” she writes, “could be read as a metaphor – say, for a nation state that smiles while covertly committing atrocities... Winterbottom acknowledges that if it had come together earlier, its sociopathic faux-bumpkin might have been read as a George W. Bush avatar.” That the film is set, however unwittingly (though that doesn't matter), at a time in history and a part of the world in which the former US president grew up enhances this reading.

But if Winterbottom acknowledges this interpretation, he ultimately denies it. For him, the “book and the film are about how fucked up people are everywhere and how people mess up and destroy their lives.” What a fine assessment of life! That he has no interest in accounting for Lou Ford's atrocious acts of violence is telling of this artist's preoccupations. Also, of his severe limits.

Apparently, then, the assumption that Winterbottom moves from project to project on the basis of its “practical, ethical or creative” obstacles, could be a correct one. This modus operandi does not mean the film-maker is incapable of creating interesting, even compelling work, but it does account for his inconsistency, and certainly places much pressure on the material itself.

The problem here is that Winterbottom approaches Thompson's material literally, apparently losing the nuances of its unreliable first-person narration by way of a confused directorial method. I want to quote Virginie Sélavy here, writing for Electric Sheep. Her assessment is spot on, so I quote her at length: “Winterbottom has said in interviews that he wanted to be ‘faithful’ to the source novel, and this has served to justify the violent excesses of the film. He is most probably not misogynistic, but his incredibly unsophisticated literal approach is particularly unsuited to capturing a novel as ambiguous as
The Killer Inside Me: Winterbottom scrupulously follows to the letter a book that actually requires reading between the lines (could literalness be one of Winterbottom’s defining directorial traits? Real migrants in In This World, real sex in 9 Songs…). Crucially, the film fails to coherently convey the fact that Lou is an unreliable narrator and that what he tells us might not be true, something that would help explain the characterisation of the women and distance the film from his view of them.”

This gets to the crux of the matter. But then, given Winterbottom's key interests in this material and also his view on film-making in general, we shouldn't be surprised. In a recent interview with
Time Out, when asked if he considered himself a “moral director”, he replied: “Well, I don’t like films that are made to teach you lessons. It's a difficult area because you can start talking a lot of pretentious nonsense if you are not careful. I think you should make films and you shouldn’t talk about films afterwards. It’s about being honest. Finding a way of being truthful.”

What are we supposed to make of such comments? Especially, now, in light of a film whose one driving force and talking point is not only the presence of violence, but the explicitness with which it is shown? Though it would be ridiculous to suggest that the kind of domestic violence portrayed in
The Killer Inside Me does not exist in real life, its portrayal within the film and the stance taken on it by the artist behind it, is incoherent to say the least.

The comments about not discussing a film once it has been made isn't a particularly unique one. There's a certain intellectual trend at present that seeks to strip the artist of all responsibility for their work. Frankly, it's more often than not a sign of confusion on the artist's part: there is little consciousness or thought being put into their work. And honesty...?

Winterbottom says that it would be “immoral to show violence that wasn't shocking, violence that seemed enjoyable or fun or attractive or simple or easy”. This is true, and there are certainly a great number of examples in a great number of films, old and new, that paint violence in an enjoyable, fun, attractive or simple way. Winterbottom's comments here, though, feel like misguided defences. If as an artist he has a serious interest in exploring violence on film, he might wish next time to adapt either more promising material, or have a fundamental re-think as to how he views life and its violent absurdities.

But one suspects this won't be the case.

Dir: Michael Winterbottom | Year: 2010 | Country: USA / UK / Sweden / France
Running Time: 109 mins approx. | With: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas