May 25, 2010

Film Review: The Killer Inside Me


DIR: Michael Winterbottom
CAST: Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba,
Elias Koteas, Ned Beatty, Bill Pullman

In a feature film career spanning just 15 years, The Killer Inside Me is Michael Winterbottom’s 18th directorial credit. Despite a work rate that makes even the likes of Woody Allen and Francois Ozon seem like slackers, Winterbottom has never yet made an uninteresting film (bad ones, sure) and this film, a controversy magnet since its debut at Sundance in January, has proved no exception.

The film is based, apparently extremely closely, on a 1952 novel of the same name by pulp noir writer Jim Thompson and tells the story of Lou Ford. Ford (Affleck) is a deputy in Central City, West Texas. He’s also a psychopath. The twists and turns are many, and the exposition minimal, but it seems that Ford wants revenge on local businessman Chester Conway (Beatty) and when he gets involved in a blackmail plot involving Conway’s son and the prostitute (Alba) they are both having an affair with, he takes his chance, killing them both brutally. That, however, is only the beginning, as Lou’s secret threatens to come out and the body count rises.

The Killer Inside Me feels almost out of time. It may be set in the 50’s (convincingly so, with Winterbottom and production designer Mark Tildesley coming up with strong period detail that suck us into the time and place), but the film itself, the way it plays, is more reminiscent of the first generation neo-noirs of the 70’s. Like those films The Killer Inside Me isn’t afraid to let you have questions. There’s not, as seems so common these days, expository dialogue to introduce each of the characters, instead writer John Curran expects us to do a little work, to understand these relationships step by step, from the way the characters relate to each other. It’s also willing to take its time, a quality which leads to one of the film’s most indelibly disturbing moments, as Ford simply, patiently, waits for someone to die. In an age where everything in movies seems to be about making sure that there’s hardly time for audience to take a breath, and that everything is explained as if to a retarded chimp, this approach is genuinely refreshing.

This is perhaps Winterbottom’s most star studded cast, but there’s no stunt casting at work here. Casey Affleck, who doesn’t work all that much, again seems to give himself over completely to his performance. He’s interesting casting as the psychotic Ford because with his baby face and his soft voice, which sounds at times as if it is yet to break, he appears completely unthreatening. This is, of course, why he’s perfect for the part, because watching him you can believe that he wouldn’t be suspected. That’s not to say that when Ford’s mask slips Affleck is ineffective, quite the reverse. In the moments when Ford is unleashed, Affleck is quite chilling, never more so than when, as he’s beating Alba’s face to a pulp, he says “I love you, it’s almost over”. It’s a complex character; a man who seems to need to destroy everything he claims to love in the most personal, brutal, way possible, and Affleck’s layered performance brings some much needed humanity, while never letting us miss the monster beneath, something especially strongly felt as he sits and calmly submits to questions from Simon Baker’s detective, not betraying a single hint of emotion.

Since The Killer Inside Me is Lou Ford’s story, and he’s in every scene, the other actors all have rather small roles, but each of them impresses in their few scenes. Jessica Alba really doesn’t have much to do, and it’s hard to see what attracted her to the role of Joyce, as most of her part is lying semi-naked in bed with Affleck. There’s not a huge amount of acting involved. However, she’s affecting as she cries “I love you” to Ford as he beats her in that horrific scene, and there’s enough genuine emotion in that moment, and the few others when she’s called upon to do more than lie on a bed in her pants, to suggest that if she had part that allowed her to stretch, there’s perhaps more to her than a pretty face. Kate Hudson has a better part as Lou’s fiancĂ©, and for the first time in a long time she gets to show just how good she can be when there’s a part for her to get her teeth into. As Amy, Hudson is much harder edged than we’re used to seeing her on screen, given her previous work she seems an odd fit for noir, but she manages to disappear behind the character. As with Alba, her character is rather underwritten, but Hudson makes more of the role than was likely on the page, making Amy an interesting and rather complex character. In still smaller parts there are strong one or two scene contributions from Elias Koteas, Ned Beatty, Brent Briscoe and Bill Pullman, who turns up unexpectedly towards the end of the film, bellowing.

After several films that have been very loose and improvisatory in nature, this is a bit of a departure for Michael Winterbottom. Stylistically it’s much more controlled, with the camera much more steady than in his recent work, this contributes to the film’s retro feel, while also helping place it in its period. However, there is still a loose feel to the acting (perhaps a result of the fact that Winterbottom doesn’t do rehearsals) which results in several strong and memorable moments, notably a shocking one in which Affleck spits at Kate Hudson’s character, in a moment that feels as vicious as any of the punches thrown in the film.

The very first audience reaction to The Killer Inside Me, at Sundance, was from a woman who stood up during the Q and A and said that Michael Winterbottom should be ashamed for having made it, and Sundance should be ashamed for having screened it. That reaction has snowballed into some rather hysterical press coverage of the film’s violence. Let’s be absolutely clear about it; The Killer Inside Me is a very violent film, and the violence in it is graphic and upsetting. However, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s brutal, but it’s not gratuitous.

Personally, the violence I find offensive is that of films like Crank - High Voltage, in which brutal violence is meted out to women and played for laughs (a stripper is shot in the breasts, causing the silicon from her implants to leak out). The Killer Inside Me deals in very personal violence, but the scenes are deceptive. Their protracted nature and bone crunching sound effects make their impact more explicit than what they actually show. Much of the time what you are seeing is not the punches landing, but Lou’s face as he lands them, like every scene in the film, those scenes are about him. The second outburst of violence shows only two punches, and again it is the sound, the erratic breathing of the victim, and the drawn out process of death, that makes you feel more than you actually see. Here’s the other thing about the violence of the film; it’s upsetting. Isn’t that a good thing? Lou is a psychotic killer, shouldn’t the film show his brutality in the ugliest way possible? It’s not fun, sure, but why should it be?

I was hoping that writing this review would help me shake out my feelings about The Killer Inside Me, but it really hasn’t worked. There is much I admire about the film, from the performances, to the direction, to its sheer impact, right down to the excellent opening credit sequence. It still troubles me though, though I don’t think the film is out and out misogynistic I do find the relentless focus on women being hit, often in a sexual context, pretty disturbing (and, in the case of several flashback scenes, pointless). I respect this film, I can’t deny that it’s well made, or that Michael Winterbottom has added yet another genre to the list of those he’s mastered, but I don’t know that I can recommend this film to anyone, and I don’t even think I like it very much. Make of that what you will.

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