Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Every so often, a movie comes along that shakes us out of apathy. For a film to do so at this time of year, when the crowds are subject to mindless explosions and effects, is an especially refreshing prospect. Unfortunately, Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, adapted from Jim Thompson's landmark 1952 pulp thriller, does so for all the wrong reasons. It's quickly gained a reputation, prompting an unprecedented reaction from a female audience member at the Sundance Film Festival in January who was appalled at the apparently misogynistic violence. Frequently tedious, often gratuitous, and with those two repellent scenes of brutality that are so badly integrated they might as well be seen as literal punch-lines, it's a nasty piece of work that never provokes in the way it should, unlike the novel on which it's based.

There Thompson shook up the clichéd world of chain-smoking anti-heroes and alluring femme fatales by making the reader complicit with a psychopath inside his own head. Said narrator is Lou Ford (assayed in the film by Casey Affleck), deputy Sheriff in a small Texan town; a place where 'everyone thinks they know who you are', observes Ford, astutely. He is ordered by Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower) to run a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town, for fear that she'll compromise the son of tycoon Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), a local client. Taking umbrage to Ford's request and refusing to be intimidated by a badge, Joyce slaps Ford about a bit, before something is awakened within and he responds, whipping her repeatedly with a belt, something that sparks an intense sado-masochistic relationship.

The lovers then plot their own scheme to blackmail her client and make off with the money, before that now notorious act of violence against Alba's character sees the narrative spear off in a different direction, the slippery killer taking perverse relish in staying one step ahead of his colleagues and a snooping DA (Simon Baker). All the above happens within the first 25 minutes, immediately underlining its status as a hectic adaptation and likely baffling those not familiar with the text. Affleck's incoherent noir drawl, a tasty proposition for film buffs, doesn't help in this regard either.

The horror creeps in early and expertly in the novel when it's revealed that Lou is battling a 'sickness', a glib word for the sociopathic tendencies that are bubbling under the surface but remain cryptic enough to exist beyond our understanding. That sense of horrific anticipation is what grips us. But it's the film's abject failure to effectively establish this sense of context that sees it snowball out of control into a shallow and uneasy adaptation. It is of course impossible for film, an external medium, to get inside a character's head fully, but Winterbottom and scriber John Curran's effort is scuppered from the outset by leaping into the narrative too quickly, leaving Affleck (usually a dab hand with darkly nuanced characters) high and dry, denying him the chance to establish early on that horrifying sense of banal evil lurking in our midst.

As a result, exposition and back-story are mangled and muffled, secondary characters like Kate Hudson (as Ford's unassuming girlfriend, Amy Stanton) and Elias Koteas (excellent as a suspicious union official, privy to knowledge of Ford's past) lacking an arc or development. What should be intricate and gripping is frequently rote and boring. And Winterbottom so badly misjudges those revolting scenes of violence, failing to realize their organic growth out of the character's twisted psychosis in the novel, that they almost seem deliberately designed to wake us from a self-imposed doze. Misogynistic or not, it certainly doesn't work, veering between the sickening and the somnambulant at will. Visually (all Stetsons, chrome cars and cigars) it's a treat, but then who watched Hannibal Lecter solely for his dress sense?