A Killer Best Left Inside?

After two days of reflection, a few hours spent on research and about 20 rewrites of this entry, I'm finally posting about a recent viewing of director Michael Winterbottom's controversial adaptation of author Jim Thompson's 1952 novel, The Killer Inside Me. I had a hard time deciding how to write about it. It's a very difficult work to get your head around, which led me down all sorts of sometimes-conflicting interpretations and possible misreadings of the film, a recurring point I'll come back to. For a number of reasons, but mostly one big one, The Killer Inside Me polarized audiences when it ran on the festival circuit last spring. Many were repelled by sequences in which the film’s small-town antihero graphically beats two women to death. At Q&A sessions after the screenings, the director was assailed by angry audience members who berated and lambasted him on grounds of feminism, humanism, violence in the pop marketplace, and taste - all completely understandable complaints, but just as possibly focused on all the wrong issues.

I think the key to understanding this film boils down to how much credit you're willing to give Winterbottom (and co-scriptwriter John Curran) in their interpretation of the novel.

Possibility #1. They got it.

Jim Thompson's original novel is an exceedingly dark expose on the deepest recesses of the human mind and the film’s unrepentant nastiness was right there in the book all along. Winterbottom simply put a famous pulp novel, complete with all the lurid sin and the ugliness of mid-20th century mainstream repression, up on the screen. Thompson envisioned a nice, young Texas deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, who behind his shades and yes-ma’am exterior is a seething caldron of psychosis. This is a monster story that you’re either on-board with or you’re not. The violence is brutal as it should be, considering the dark themes and twisted protagonist at the centre of the story. If anything, Winterbottom's version is less overtly explicit than the book, but, and this is a big but, there’s a difference between prose, where the reader can indulge their imagination as much or as little as they feel comfortable with, and film, where someone else has interpreted the events and the only option is to look away.

One way to approach Winterbottom's film is to see it as an attempt to expose the hypocrisy of the modern movie audience's increasing taste for whitewashed screen-violence. As controversial as the choice to film certain scenes with such horrific clarity was, I think the reason they resonate and disturb so deeply is they're accomplished without a hint of irony. On this level, Winterbottom achieves a sort of honest realism, successfully repositioning the violence well away from the fanboy-fare mayhem of movies in the Tarantino-vein (with their baseball bat beatings, accidental beheadings and roasted Nazis funhouse-veneer), and places it instead, right in front of you. It's completely uncompromising and a long-overdue cinematic corrective from the near monopoly tongue-in-cheek cartoon-violence has had on film of late.

Possibility #2. They didn't get it.

The novel that The Killer Inside Me is adapted from is a first-person account of a murderer's own inner dialogue. This is fairly evident early on (and for anyone who has read the book) and knowing it isn't any kind of spoiler. It could be argued that this adaptation crucially fails to convey this important fact with any coherence. They seem to have excluded the possibility that the narrative stems from a wholly unreliable source and that what he tells us might not be true. Winterbottom and co-scriptwriter John Curran's version seems entirely too literal an interpretation of a novel layered with such ambiguity and uncertainty. In Thompson's book, for example, the main character's ongoing relationship with the town sweetheart is ultimately revealed to be an entirely fictional construct. This knowledge would have helped to put the violence in some context, had it been translated onto the screen somehow. As it is, some of the flashbacks don't make a lot of sense because the narration is presented as accurate, when in fact, it might not be. The tension created in the book stems from the play between Ford's narrative accounts and what really happened, something that isn't well-handled in the film.

The Killer Inside Me is a film that suffers from an entirely unsophisticated misreading of the source material. There is little room left for the important and necessary reading-between-the-lines of Thompson's original story. Even though much of the spoken dialogue is lifted directly from the novel (perhaps too much, in fact), it doesn't compensate for an oversimplified rendering of such a complex and constantly-shifting narrative. As it is, the film seems a little like a photocopy of a masterwork. It looks the part, but is missing the subtlety, nuance and mystery of the original.

Possibility #3. They shouldn't have tried.

The trouble with this film is either of the above-noted possibilities are entirely plausible, defensible and reasonable... even though I'm personally leaning to the second and wrote them both. Winterbottom's decision to treat the violence so bluntly is both a blessing and a curse on the film. While it may have served to effectively communicate the sadism and misogynistic-horror of Thompson's Lou Ford, it also serves to deaden the underlying ambiguity of the novel's dark, nightmarish plot and lend credence to claims that the film is nothing but sexist and exploitative. The question that I'm tempted to ask is how would you write a first-person narrative about a misogynist sociopath that doesn't come off as misogynist itself? Not once does Winterbottom try to show Lou Ford in a sympathetic light. He's presented as a cold, calculating monster who destroys nearly everything and everyone around him – most notably, the ones who actually care for him.

I'm tempted to call this film a failure, in spite of the fact that they got so much right. The most specific problem I can point to has little to do with the script itself. Despite the fact that Thompson's novels have been adapted to film numerous times (The Getaway, The Grifters, Hit Me, Pop. 1280, etc.), I'm not sure that this particular story lends itself to the constraints inherent to cinematic story telling. Inner dialogue rarely works on screen (just ask David Lynch or Terry Gilliam) because in literary fiction, so much relies on the reader's imagination and interpretation. The biggest problem with The Killer Inside Me might be that there isn't a mystery at its core. The murderer is revealed in the opening act and the balance of the story is spent waiting for him to get caught. It inverts and shuffles the typical pledge, turn, prestige order most crime film plots rely on.


In the end, this film is possibly best-described as a series of concentric circles of misunderstanding. The script is a possible misreading of the original text and the audience's negative reaction, a likely misreading of the director's intent. As a result, The Killer Inside Me comes off as one of the most interesting and experimental films of the year, partly because of what it is, partly because of what it isn't, but mostly because it probably shouldn't have been made in the first place.

I'm placing it exactly half way between a must-see and a must-avoid.


1 comment:

Worsenfunk said...

super cool split-personality review pops, i'm going to watch it in the next couple days... Just looking at the cover, i notice 'contains explicit content - some viewers may find offensive', which is a combination of degrading already boring box art and a testament to the type of audience reaction you allude to in your post.