Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

One of the fundamental problems with the new film by prolific but patchy Michael Winterbottom is that it remains too enamoured of the matter-of-fact psychology of Jim Thompson’s source novel; indeed, Winterbottom has described is as requiring almost no adaptation, and reinstated great chunks of the book into the script he inherited. Thompson’s virtue as a writer is his ability to conjure a grubby and seedy hardboiled pulp world devoid of morality; but his failure is in creating unreal characters.

The Killer Inside Me centres on Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a 29-year old deputy sherriff in a small town in western Texas. He may seem like a boy scout with a badge, but we soon learn he is a cold-hearted sociopath willing to dish out vicious beatings and murder with equanimity, maintaining the calm, grinning façade of the insane even as the noose tightens around his neck. The film is narrated in voiceover by Affleck, and although the title implies a measure of self-reflection, or at least self-knowledge, there’s barely a hint of either in the text. It is not even clear whether he harbours a deep-seated psychological urge to kill, or if he is simply willing and able to do so, casually, out of expedience. It’s made explicit that he does not dwell on his crimes, past or future, and all but the first double murder are executed to cover his tracks; knocking off his prostitute girlfriend and her would-be lover appears to be a plan to double cross the double-crossers as a form of revenge on the old man who may or may not have caused the death of his brother.

In fact, despite Thompson’s sketchy psychology, Winterbottom goes even further to omit motivation. The film barely even implies that Lou’s brother took the rap for his teenaged sexual assault or that his physically abusive first encounter with the prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba) reawakens his dormant psychosis, and Winterbottom deliberately omitted a section in which Ford reflects on his father and his inherited psycopathy. Instead, we learn that his mother enjoyed being beaten by both father and son, leadenly presented via photographs hidden in a bible, shelved next to a volume of Freud, and his casual ability to kill is tied with far too much simplicity to his penchant for sado-masochistic sex. Equally ill-integrated into the character make-up is his enjoyment of reading quietly in his beautifully furnished library whilst listening to Strauss (or playing chess, or practising calculus). Ford grumbles that in a small town everyone thinks they know you. That they do not is a quite clear and valid point, but then we know him barely any better. The presentation of character in the “this-is-just-how-some-people-are” mode is a tricky one to pull off, with the usual result of two-dimensionality and an audience that feels unsatisfied and cheated; it’s to the credit of Affleck’s charm and subtlety that Ford can retain our interest past the first ten minutes.

Less so Jessica Alba as Joyce. She betrays her weakness as an actress throughout, but few would be able to pull off the switch from having her buttocks beaten blue by Ford’s belt, to melting in his arms. Again, doubtless there are some people just like this, but for those viewers unrefined enough to appreciate the exquisite pleasures of SM, the transition will seem to quick; the whole scene, in fact, plays out too quickly, prompting incomprehension rather than shock, with little chance given for tension to rise in their initially hostile exchange, or Ford’s mounting anger as she beats on him (and the vicious effect of his belt-lashing is undermined by needless cutting and close-ups).

The other fundamental problem with the film, as Winterbottom found out from enraged Sundance audiences, is the level of violence meted out to the women. Ford administers severe beatings to both Joyce and his girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson), and we are spared no detail. His violence towards men however, is swift and brutal: a cigar to the hand, shots to the head; the hanging of a boy in his jail cell, the most intriguingly tricky of his crimes, is played entirely offscreen; and in his final pummeling of a blackmailing drunk we see nothing of the victim. Not so the women. The camera seems to enjoy too much, even if only by a shot or two, the gradual reduction of Alba’s face to a bloody pulp, and is happy to dwell uncomfortably on Hudson’s twitching body (she, incidentally, is treated very unflatteringly throughout, until a thrown-away bit of psychology has her start to resemble Alba, and her face grotesquely covered by her dress, this actually her best bit of acting in the movie). These are still valid moments, even if both women take it with no squeak of resistance, but such a lack of equal opportunities viciousness on the part of the film-makers has the stench of misogyny, be it conscious or not.

This being a Winterbottom film, it’s a neatly put together affair, but as so often, even the muted psychology aside, there’s a sense that he is not really engaged with his subject. The opening scene in the sheriff’s office is all standard-issue TV close-ups, and when the soundtrack is not wallpapered with the attempted ironic counterpoint of hillbilly bebop, it’s groaning with predictably ominous strings. There are considerably too many montage sequences (and repetitions) of Affleck and Alba cavorting in golden sunlight, and the barnstorming deus ex machina of Bill Pullman’s appearance at the end is almost entirely inexplicable. Even the explosive finale feels slightly muted. Slick style (the jazzy opening credits are almost the best thing about the movie) and a magnetic Affleck keep the whole thing watchable. No less a luminary than Kubrick described the book as the most chilling first-person portrait of a killer he had ever come across; the film is as adept and entertaining as its over-rated source and, more dangerously than on the page, disturbingly more interested in the acts of violence than in their causes and implications. The trick to adapting a second-rate novel is to develop its underlying themes and issues and jettison the authorial voice. If anything Winterbottom has done the opposite, creating a portrait without insight, vicious rather than chilling, and believable only if one is satisfied with a worldview where people do things “just because”.

Postscript: since the preview screenings of The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom has been about in the press, stressing the faithfulness of his adaptation and emphasising the dichotomy between Ford’s public persona and his inner psychology. With regard to the latter, touches such as his well-stocked library and classical music collection seem to be indicators of a rich and intelligent inner life, the slow-talking hayseed act supposedly a front. But this is nowhere apparent in the actual persona revealed through the voiceover and the increasingly slapdash manner in which he commits his murders and covers his tracks betray a minimum of forward thinking or cunning. The character remains an unpleasant mystery to us; Winterbottom’s consistent avoidance of tainting his films within any trace of his own personality or point of view is scuppered here by the second-rate nature of source material he so prioritises. If you want novels with rich and satisfying characterisation, or that deal with fundamental moral or metaphysical issues, or even ones that are simply an insightful portrait of the real world, you don’t turn to Thompson; efficient, nasty plots and a delectably, if ultra-cynically grubby milieu are his strengths. Given that the unpleasant violence of the film is drawn proudly from the source, standard differences between page and screen apply: in any cinematic point of view, the viewer is implicated, and sometimes the viewer doesn’t like it. In which case, it had better have a point to make and “that’s just how it is; we can’t explain it” or “it was in the book” simply don’t cut it.

d Michael Winterbottom p Andrew Eaton, Chris Hanley, Bradford L. Schlei sc John Curran ph Marcel Zyskind ed Mags Arnold pd Mark Tildesley m Melissa Parmenter cast Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Tom Bowers, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman, Brent Briscoe, Matthew Maher
(2010, USA, 109m)
posted by tom newth at

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