Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

On paper it didn’t look too promising: the prolific but wildly inconsistent Michael Winterbottom in the director’s chair; a source novel that was always going to present difficulties in adaptation; the lead female roles assigned to Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, who have done nothing of interest, acting-wise, since ‘Sin City’ and ‘Almost Famous’ respectively; and controversy already raging over its depiction of violence against women.

Ordinarily, I’d have waited for the storm in the teacup to blow over and appraised it on DVD maybe a year down the line. But with Mrs Agitation away at a seminar and the temptation of getting wasted in any one of Nottingham’s many watering holes not conducive to either the finances or the liver, I took myself off to a showing at the Screen Room. I took the philosophical approach: no matter the quality of the film itself, a blinding performance from Casey Affleck was almost guaranteed.

I was right. Casey Affleck is singularly the best thing about ‘The Killer Inside Me’. The next best thing is a triumvirate of excellent supporting roles courtesy of Simon Baker, Tom Bower and Net Beatty. Jessica Alba is as blandly miscast as she was in the remake of ‘The Eye’, while Kate Hudson’s turn is acceptable rather than inspired.

Still, in the case of the people versus ‘The Killer Inside Me’, it’s neither Ms Alba nor Ms Hudson that I’d haul into the dock to answer the charge of turning Jim Thompson’s darkly compelling dissection of the mind of a psychopath into such a dull and muddled film. No, sir. It’s Winterbottom and – on an aiding and abetting charge – scripter John Curran who stand before us today.

Let’s hear a few words from the defence and see if there’s any mitigation to be had. Well, the retro titles are pretty cool and establish an atmosphere, which carries over into the first five minutes or so, suggestive of a laconic contemporary noir. Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography is very good, lending everything a parched, faded look; washed-out vistas contrast starkly with shadowy interiors. Mark Tildesley’s production design, on the other hand, is a bit too fussy.

Yeah, that’s about it for the defence. The prosecution have the weightier case. Let’s start with the fact that Thompson’s novel is a first person narrative by a charming but unreliable narrator. Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford isn’t guilty of withholding the details of his violent outbursts in the novel; but what he does is he puts a certain spin on them. He makes the most abhorrent acts seem reasonable, and there’s no doubt as you read that Ford sincerely believes that, well heck ma’am I jus’ didn’t have no choice in the matter. His sexual deviations – not his fault. His violence against women – just somethin’ he had to do. Loved ‘em really.

Now, as Anthony Burgess pointed out re: the translation of his novella ‘A Clockwork Orange’ into Stanley Kubrick’s film, the use of “nadsat” – the admixture of cockney rhyming slang, corrupted Russian and Romany colloquialisms which first person narrator Alex expresses himself in – acts as something of a protective screen between the reader and the events depicted. Lou Ford’s narration in Thompson’s novel isn’t quite as cloaked in linguistic experimentation as Alex’s, but there’s a great difference between reading the book, being properly horrified by it, but knowing we shouldn’t take Lou’s words entirely on trust and sitting in a cinema watching Casey Affleck beat Jessica Alba into a bloody pulp in a scene that seems to run on as long as the gang rape in ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ and is accompanied by some of the most inappropriately heavy-handed sound effects work in the history of cinema.

I’m not going to get into the whole debate about whether this kind of thing should even be depicted on film and in this kind of detail. Violence happens in life and a serious and mature artist, in whatever medium, should not be afraid – or discouraged – to deal with the subject. However, the way Winterbottom deals with the subject is questionable. Where Ford romanticises the murders in the novel (ie. by pleading his case to the reader while sidelining the victims’ importance/humanity), Winterbottom visualises this aesthetic by having prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Alba) demonstrate no reaction whatsoever – no shock, no attempt to flea or fight back, no desperation to cling onto her life – while Ford systematically beats her to death.

So: problem number one – and bear in mind that this comes only 20 minutes or so after a scene where Ford gives Joyce one hell of a spanking to which she responds by enthusiastically having sex with him – this paints women not only as submissive but responsive to heavy-handed treatment and sexual misuse.

Problem number two – by comparison to the two women Ford kills onscreen, in protracted and graphic detail, the deed is done quickly (or even offscreen) when he deals out violence against men. The double standard speaks for itself.

Problem number three – as soon as Ford’s finished with his seemingly interminable killing of Joyce, the life goes out of the film. The potential for drama is high. With Hitchcock or Clouzot at the helm (hell, I’m betting even Shyamalan could build up a fair amount of suspense), the tension, as Ford tries to set up some poor dupe and stay one step ahead of a coterie of characters all of whom pose him some degree of threat, could have been unremitting. Winterbottom, however, barely seems interested.

Which leads to a question: was Winterbottom aiming to deny the audience the comfort zone of recognisable genre-based tropes, thereby forcing them to face the brutality of Ford’s misdeeds by leeching the dynamic out of every scene that doesn’t involve a woman and Ford’s fists? Or were the two scenes featuring said participants Winterbottom’s entire raison d’etre for making the film?

My money’s on the latter. In some respects, Winterbottom strikes me as a bargain basement Michael Haneke. The violence against women scenes in ‘The Killer Inside Me’ are there for the same reason as the sniffing-the-cum-stained-tissue scene in ‘The Piano Teacher’, the suicide in ‘Hidden’ and basically every frame of film between the opening and closing credits in ‘Funny Games’ – to provoke. But while Haneke (whose films I have mixed feelings about) brings a coldly intellectual formalism to the art of filmmaking, the very look and aesthetic of his work demanding a cerebral response, Winterbottom doesn’t have the same cachet. His films don’t quite function on the same level.

‘The Killer Inside Me’ has flashes of an interesting film – mainly due to Affleck’s performance – but the problems it engenders along the way are finally and irrevocably compounded by a ludicrous final scene (how the fuck can you soak an entire house in gasoline and then sit there smoking a cigar while you wait for the authorities to come for you? the fumes would ignite first flick of the lighter!) that’s almost guaranteed to send you haring back to the box office demanding a refund. I’ve read that Michael Winterbottom came to the project after something else he was working on fell through. In other words he made the movie for the sake of making a movie. It shows.


Simon said...

1) I actually wanted to see it.
2) I'll still see it for Casey Affleck.
3) When isn't Kate Hudson agreeably bland?

Neil Fulwood said...

1) Understandable.
2) Definitely the right reason.
3) Good call.

Let me know what you think once you've got round to seeing the film. It'll be interesting to compare notes.