The knives are out for Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Killer Inside Me, which opens this coming Friday July 2 at the Shattuck Cinemas. An adaptation of hardboiled novelist Jim Thompson’s most famous work, Winterbottom’s film stands accused of looking kindly upon violence against women, and (worst of all) suggesting victims may be complicit in the crimes committed against them. If there’s blame to be apportioned, however, assign it to the source material– The Killer Inside Me is extremely faithful to the novel, and there’s nothing here that Thompson didn’t put on paper almost sixty years ago.
Casey Affleck (the Affleck it’s okay to like) stars as Lou Ford, deputy sheriff in a small West Texas town circa the mid-1950s. Lou seems like the straightest of straight arrows, and his ostensibly gentle touch gets him assigned the task of running prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town. But Lou has a well-concealed mean streak, and when Joyce angrily slaps him after he rejects her advances, he answers in kind. The two swiftly develop a sado-masochistic relationship in which violence and sex are inextricably intertwined.
Enter Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson), son of rich land developer Chester (Ned Beatty, about as huggable here as he is in Toy Story 3). Elmer’s been carrying on with Joyce, and she and Lou have cooked up a plan to blackmail the boy for a cool $10,000. But Lou has other fish to fry, including fiancée Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), and the scheme rapidly devolves from shakedown to double homicide. Being a lawman and all, Lou is quite capable of covering up his crime—but there will be more victims before justice is served.
In Thompson’s book, Lou Ford is an affectless monster whose motivation seems to consist primarily of covering up one crime with another. Affleck does about as good a job as possible bringing the character to life, though he’s not quite able to completely convey Ford’s cold-blooded callousness (perhaps this is a good thing). As in the book, there’s no attempt made to justify his crimes: they just happen.
The Killer Inside Me made its American premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and talk of its reactionary sexual politics immediately began: many critics simply couldn’t accept the idea that Joyce Lakeland likes getting roughed up. From there, it’s a few easy steps to completing the equation: consensual sado-masochism = feminine submission. Without expounding at length about cinematic depictions of violence against women (ground covered quite adequately by Carol Clover’s important 1993 book Men, Women and Chainsaws), however, it’s important to remember that the book is every bit as brutal as the film. This isn’t the case of a filmmaker trying to fuel outrage to sell tickets.
So what attracted Winterbottom to The Killer Inside Me? I’ve no idea, but the Blackburn, Lancashire-born filmmaker clearly enjoys a challenge, and isn’t scared of working in different genres: among his earlier works are westerns (The Claim), raucous musicals (24 Hour Party People), clever meta-comedies (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), neo-realist tragedies (The Road to Guantanamo), documentaries (The Shock Doctrine), and Hollywood schlock (A Mighty Heart). Perhaps he simply felt it was time for a film noir or a fifties period piece. He’s currently working on a project about Israel’s Stern Gang.
According to Robert Polito’s magisterial Jim Thompson biography, the appropriately titled Savage Art, director Stanley Kubrick once described The Killer Inside Me as “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered”. I’d second Mr. Kubrick’s opinion, while also noting that Michael Winterbottom’s film is the best big-screen literary adaptation I’ve seen since Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist. If you’re a fan of Thompson, you won’t be disappointed.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.