22 August 2010

At the Cinema: The Killer Inside Me

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom/2009) USA/109 mins *****

The hubbub surrounding The Killer Inside Me was to be expected - and to be duly taken with a hefty dose of deliberation. Although, in effect, the uproar over the film is part and parcel of its interest. A film like this shouldn't slip by unnoticed - and in today's net-savvy world a film like this never could. Films that portray brutal violence on screen should sear a visible mark on our screens and leave a socially-dubious skid mark on our brains.

Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of one of Jim Thompson’s darker, clammier novels follows small-town sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) as he weasels around 1950s dead-end Texas. He divides time between uber-violently mishandling both his girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) and hooker-mistress Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), and mismanaging various shady comings-and-goings with other local authority figures; all the time becoming more and more haunted - via some handy flashbacks - by a traumatic event from his boyhood.

Thoughtful attention from various external sources (audience and festival reactions, press coverage, film-industry responses etc) assists in bringing a film to our attention and help to find it a bigger audience. But it's dividing the intelligent or worthwhile responses (looking at a film with good measure, placing it in a wider cinematic or social context) from the alarmist or knee-jerk responses (Oh-my-god-this-film-is-sick! - I therefore shall never see it!) that’s the tricky part of the equation.

The more level-thinking, reasonable adults who see this latest succès de scandale, the better. The debate around cinematic violence can then widen to take in fresh voices - some of them will undoubtedly be crucial, constructive and, hopefully, progressive. (Though of course some will certainly be Daily Mail ‘up-in-arms’ reactions over it all). The Killer Inside Me's frequent violent scenes are questionable, troubling and horrible; it’s compulsive, often difficult viewing. It is, to be blunt, just as it should be.

The extended scenes of brutality - most often aimed at the two women in the protagonist's life - don't leave much space for drawing clear breath over their arduous durations; they're queasily prolonged, upsetting and the kind of scene no-one really likes to have to think about, let alone watch, over many agonising minutes of screen time. (Several minutes last much longer than we often assume in the cinema).

Much of the film’s tone is ungraspable and strives to be putrid. One reading of the film could suggest that it all occurs within Lou Ford’s warped psyche; all - or at least most - crucial events could be filtered through his unreliable perspective, skewed as such by his psychotic fallibility. Another reading could infer that it's simply the way Winterbottom lays it out, that he’s simply umpiring a clever game of Shock the Audience. Either idea points to why the film is both intriguing and infuriating in (roughly) equal measure.

That tone wavers plenty, but there's perhaps no distinct purpose to much of the film. But then violence itself never really has a distinct purpose - it just happens. Those that inflict it may have their own reasons, however misguided or ill judged, but those who feel it see no justifiable reason. But by the end I was left only with a hazy impression of a sickened mind, nothing concretely compelling or solidly conveyed.

On more than one occasion I pondered the notion that it was notorious genre-hopper Winterbottom’s “go” at Film Noir: guns and girls go with the territory, and Thompson’s the go-to guy for questionable violence; mix the two together and - voilà! - an instant polemic for our consideration. (Thinking back to how rounded other less flashy, more naturalistic explorations of murderous men like, say, Vengeance Is Mine or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer were, The Killer Inside Me feels like too much stylistic posing, without interest in truly mining the ickiest recesses of a blackened mind.)

There's not much middle ground. What there is of it is narratively shaky, unstable; away from the shock scenes or moments of limpid exposition, very little happens that nudges things forward. Winterbottom’s attention to detail, and how he propels the plot along in the scenes not impregnated by the imminent possibility of eroticised menace, isn’t perhaps as assured as it is within the ones that are. But he is savvy enough to position his beacon scenes of high violence few and far between, therefore maximising their potential shock impact on the audience; we get due time to stew in our afterthoughts.

There’s scant interest in the character’s lives. How they practically and emotionally exist outside of Winterbottom’s need to see them either inflict pain, or react to it being inflicted, is largely absent. Merely positing that the violence is justified because it’s aroused via the sickest perspective in the room (as he has suggested in interviews), and therefore unable to be disentangled from his main character's particular viewpoint, sounds as if he’s setting a blaze and then leaping for the fire escape.

The reasoning (and explanation?) for all the murky visualisations of violence may reside somewhere between Ford’s and Winterbottom's gazes; character or interpreter, there’s a curious chasm for eisegesis between the two. I wasn't entirely sure whether the narrative's elusive tone was a clever device to nudge for critical responses or simply a whole lot of smoke to cover the fact that no one here may have had a concrete perspective.

Either way, it's the most intriguing stab at opening up the onscreen debate on film violence for at least a few years - and it’s one hornet’s nest that the media and the cinema-going public alike should have hit on a bit harder. (I seem to remember a bigger kerfuffle on the 2000 re-release of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; I was hoping for multiferous levels of Crash-like controversy.) For a polemic to really dig its nails into society, you want it front and centre, on everyone’s lips. The splash Killer has so far made hasn’t been as sizeable as it should have been. Whether it’s due to Winterbottom’s indetermination or a lack of interest in the problem it poses, it’s a film that at least invites us to ask hard questions.

On the acting side of things, Affleck was good - all lazy-eyed ugliness and contemptuous line delivery, as if he viewed everyone he met as scarcely worth wasting more than the bare essential of words on - but it’s very much an extension of his Robert Ford character from The Assassination of Jesse James... (In the world of fictive movie connectivity they might even be distantly related.) Alba and Hudson’s previously untapped willingness to branch out (both are more widely known for lighter rom-com fluff) means we get commendably intense work from them; both give generous performances for little in return. Although only Hudson is the right fit for ‘50s small-town noir.

The muggy atmosphere and lushly-detailed period trappings are a visual treat nonetheless. (DoP Marcel Zyskind lights the dank interiors and the wide-open landscapes with the same sweaty zeal; the grab bag of songs are cues of the creepiest kind.) But for my money The Grifters is still the best Jim Thompson adaptation, with a nod toward Maggie Greenwald's underrated The Kill-Off and Thompson's own dialogue work on The Killing.

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