REVIEW: Characters Deserve Better in Violent Killer Inside Me
The brash violence of Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me -- adapted from Jim Thompson's merciless and enthralling 1952 pulp novel about a psychotic West Texas sheriff -- began dividing audiences last January at Sundance. It also appears to have divided Winterbottom himself, though he doesn't know it. The controversy involves two particularly violent scenes, one a protracted sequence in which a character played by Jessica Alba is beaten until her face resembles what one character calls "stewed meat, hamburger." The nutso sheriff, played by Casey Affleck, throws perhaps some 20 punches; we see about six or seven of them land, as Alba's face becomes progressively bruised, bloodied and misshapen, until it resembles a cracked-open, oversized plum.
Winterbottom, when asked about his approach to the story's violence, has defended his choices with what amounts to an "It's all in the book" wave of the hand. "For me that was the point of the violence in the film in a way -- it is something very repulsive," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "In terms of how we depicted it, we were just trying to make it as close to the book as possible. The book is very shocking."
Winterbottom's right about one thing: A movie version of The Killer Inside Me has to be violent. Thompson's novel is elegant in its bluntness and cruelty, as efficient as a closed fist -- you can turn away from it, but you can't escape it. But there's no subtle way to put this: Winterbottom's version goes too far.
He is faithful to the book, to the point of fetishization: Winterbottom is the adapter as stenographer, a dogged chronicler of every comma and em-dash. It's Thompson's novel, but it's Winterbottom's movie, and the director hasn't taken firm control of the violence it. The camera has no conscience; it doesn't know by itself when to stop looking. And sometimes a filmmaker owes it to his characters to look away.
In The Killer Inside Me, set in '50s Texas, Affleck plays deputy sheriff Lou Ford, a supposedly plain-vanilla lawman with a taste for homespun clichés, sick sex and killing, although the denizens of the tiny town where he lives seem to be most directly affected only by the first: Their eyes glaze over as he fills their airspace with bland aphorisms like "Haste makes waste," delivered in a blurry drawl. But Ford is a wily son-of-a-gun. Boring the bejesus out of everyone around him is part of his subterfuge. (The story, as Thompson wrote it and as screenwriter John Curran has adapted it here, is told from Ford's point of view.) There's a seedy secret in Ford's past, as well as a deceased half-brother who took the rap for it. There are also a few secrets in his present: Early in the movie he meets, and falls for, Joyce Lakeland (Alba), a prostitute who's recently set up shop on the outskirts of town; he repeatedly sneaks out to see her for kinky assignations, and she falls in love with him. He also has a steady girl, Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), a respectable type who nonetheless likes to wait for Lou at his home, clad only in her scanties.
Everyone around Ford takes him at face value, willfully oblivious to the stench of his interior rot. Only a bum who's apparently drifted into town -- played, in a small but perfectly shaped role by Brent Briscoe -- cottons to what's going on behind Ford's blanker-than-blank eyes. When the deputy stubs his lit cigar out in the bum's outstretched hand, the guy cries out in pain before stalking off with a warning: "You better watch that stuff, bud."
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