Violent and misogynistic, Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me adapts Jim Thompson’s noir novel to expose ’50s America’s darker side. It’s pulp friction.
In The Mood For Killing by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
From its Eames-style geometric opening titles, there’s a patina of Bakelite and melamine that seeps through Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, slowly evoking an authentic Fifties feel, like a dark mirror to Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love. It’s based on Jim Thompson’s noir novel and film adaptations have been consistently shelved since Marilyn Monroe was headlined just before her death to play low-bodiced hooker Joyce. It’s sexy and violent, Hollywood gold dust. And despite a lowriding 1976 version, it’s taken the combined might of Winterbottom, Affleck, Hudson and Alba to get the punters really salivating.
It’s fair to say Michael Winterbottom isn’t afraid of the graphic. What 9 Songs did for sex, The Killer Inside Me does it in spades for psychopathic brutality. And for those viewers already jaundiced by fictional serial killers and sex pests, there’s something refreshingly new about its unfettered bloodlust. The violence isn’t fetishised or explained, although it is excruciating and painfully misogynistic. And Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, with his rasping drawl, sententious locutions and prim aloofness is the very anathema of cool.
Deputy Sheriff in Central City, Lou Ford leads a peaceful life. Quietly repressed until strong-wind, black-cat prostitute Joyce Lakeland crosses his path of smouldering embers. When she slaps him, she awakens a long forgotten psychosis, a potent confusion of violent sex and flesh-thirsty abuse. From behind, one hand over her mouth, her eyes, violence and love come together until he beats his beloved to Kingdom Come with an unsophisticated gloved fist. Lacking the expediency of the gun or sadistic intricacy of the knife, Lou’s motives are unclear, bludgeoning her with blunt sweet nothings, “I’m sorry. I love you.”
The misogyny of the violence can be explained as a psychosexual gin fizz of sadism and juked libido. The misogyny of the girls however, both Joyce and Amy take the beating and come back for more, is shockingly not of this time. Whether there was ever a time where women flipped over for a kiss after being raped is more than doubtful, but there are perhaps skeletons in the Freudian closets of the whore and the schoolteacher, making them embrace the abuse with such gusto. As such, Lou the brute finds himself in an unholy trio; feminised by a fraternity (or sorority) of the abused and disenfranchised.
Lou is a victim, but he’s also a self-hating torturer, as a teenager he molests a girl and lets his adopted brother Mike take the rap. Or spanks housekeeper Helene on the buttock just like Daddy does. That such a backstory is unsatisfyingly fragmented could be ascribed to Lou’s repression, but it’s also symptomatic of a half-baked mid-century Freudianism, reminiscent of another Fifties pulp classic, Psycho. Looking back Bloch’s novel, and Hitchcock’s movie too, is facile; the secrets of a stifled sex drive too easily summated. But if Winterbottom had incorporated Hitchcock’s infamous narrative fracture, we may have had more time to empathise with the killer or the working girl before she becomes his girlfriend in a coma.
I know. I know. It’s serious. The will has found a way. Lou starts acting out his sadistic desires, stubbing out cigarillos in a vagrant’s hand, bolstered by his sheriff’s badge. Rather thoughtlessly, he tries to cover his murderous tracks, feigning a fight between Joyce and Elmer Conway, and much of the rest of the violence is his attempt to break in this runaway lie; the frightened suicide of Johnnie Papas, the laissez-faire slow-boil murder of Amy, neither of whom had it coming, saw it coming. Perhaps there’s something of the psychosexual slow frenzy in the killing of Amy, who looks like Joyce, who looks like Helene. Or maybe it’s male commitment-phobia, twice unwilling to up sticks and share his life with a broad. Unwilling to leave Daddy’s temple, masochistically bound to his books on Freud and American oak furniture.
There is of course a thriller plot of sorts with the county attorney piecing together the facts and forensics, if not Ford’s sanity. Casey Affleck is stunning, and Bill Pullman turns in a career-realigning cameo as tobacco-chewing Billy Boy Walker, the lawyer weeding his yard for creeping charlies. But Winterbottom’s real moments of cinematic panache come in his sublime fantasy cinemas. Lou’s memory of Joyce burns like a B-movie, all grindhouse and projection flicker. And there’s a slideshow in his asylum cell of the lives and loves that got him there, only Daddy missing. But the effect is beautiful, lighting up for a moment Lou’s cold, dead Texan blue eyes.
Elsewhere the effect is overwrought, like a kid in a sweetshop with too many vinyl ditties and limp CGI effects. The ending bodes well, Ford in a twisted Fahrenheit 451 conflagration, a nihilism de profundis, but the final-reel reapparition of Joyce sets everything hurtling against the grain, a dubious reunited-in-death reconciliation more upsetting than the face-pummeling. Like its chauvinism, the pulp ending is a legacy of Thompson’s novel, ugly antiques in Winterbottom’s otherwise sleek retro wonderland. But for this genre-busting director, The Killer Inside Me shines as a thrills and chills biopic of the Washita lawman driving off the mainroad.
The Killer Inside Me is released in the UK on 4th June 2010.