Friday, 18 June 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Jim Thompson, the author of the 1952 crime thriller, The Killer Inside Me, was described as America's "dime-store Dostoevsky." Michael Winterbottom's new film adaptation has Dostoevsky stamped all over it. The British auteur references the film noir genre, the familiar landscapes of cops and broads moving in Hopperesque interiors. However, Winterbottom's real interest is in the moral void at the core of this world. From the outset, we are trapped inside the mind of the fictional sociopath, Lou Ford. He is a Texan Raskolnikov. The events we witness are interpreted from his point of view. He provides the narrative voice that rationalises his violence. As events unfold, it becomes apparent that his perspective is psychologically warped and wholly unreliable.

Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford as a clean shaven, clean living deputy sheriff. Tipping his stetson, he greets those around him with an hypnotic Southern drawl. He is the man that every young woman dreams of bringing home to their parents. "I've known you since you was knee-high to a grasshopper," says Sherrif Bob Maples, "and you ain't done anything wrong." However, Lou's seductive persona masks pathological tendencies that he cannot repress. When he tries to persuade a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland played by Jessica Alba, to leave town, she reacts by assaulting him. This violence triggers a disproportionate physical response which erupts in his whipping her raw with his belt. The film follows the sadistic chain reaction as leather is replaced by fists, fists by boots and finally, boots by a blade.

To add to the moral confusion, Lou and Joyce become lovers. She accepts the beatings and disturbingly, takes a masochistic pleasure in them. Joyce mistakes physical abuse and libidinous sex for love. Meanwhile, Lou's fiancee, a schoolteacher called Amy Stanton, accepts the lies and empty promises that Lou spins her. She knows that he is having an affair but even this knowledge is not enough for her to break from the vicious relationship with Lou. Yet, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson never turn these women into passive victims but expose their feisty and perceptive natures. At the same time, they skillfully capture Joyce and Amy's helplessness before the spiritual black hole in the man they love. They cannot escape his gravitational pull.

Casey Affleck's dead eyed, opaque performance is one of quiet intelligence. He does not offer a stock psycho creep, a Norman Bates pastiche. Instead, Affleck uses a rich emotional palate to create his psychopath. Lou's actions are monstrous but he is never reduced to a monster. He is always human, always identifiable as one of us and that makes him all the more chilling. After almost beating Joyce to death, Lou is jolted by regret and sobs "I'm sorry, I'm real sorry - I love you - goodbye." But authentic remorse, Affleck shows, remains outside Lou's psychic makeup. In an act of self-mutilation, Lou has removed from within himself anything that might be recognised as compassion, empathy or love. Ultimately, this is his most evil act, the one that destroys the truth of himself. Lou's sadism appals, but Affleck succeeds in ensuring that the primary response to this evil is not moral outrage, but pity. In Affleck's hands, Lou becomes a pitiful creature.

Winterbottom uses flashbacks to illustrate the supposed roots of Lou's psychosis. Although, it is not clear if this is an imaginary back story concocted by Lou as a psychological explanation for his behaviour. In his mind the distinctions between truth and deceit, reality and fantasy, good and evil have collapsed. Winterbottom challenges the viewer to uphold these moral distinctions or like Lou, to reject the idea that there is a moral order. If we choose the latter, Winterbottom suggests, then it is possible that the killer could exist in all of us.

Audiences have long become accustomed to the ironic violence of Quentin Tarantino and the grand guignol of torture porn. But when The Killer Inside Me was shown at film festivals, such as Sundance, there were protests about the gratuitous violence directed against the film's female characters. The film certainly includes some of the most graphic scenes of domestic abuse and cruelty. Winterbottom assaults a largely desensitized audience with images so brutal that we are awakened to the reality of violence. But, here lies the problem. The hyper-realism of the violence dominates everything else in the film. After a scene of forensically observed sadism, an audience is left reeling and incapable of engaging with character or narrative. Winterbottom cannot integrate the violence and in the end, this failure sucker punches his work.

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