Tuesday, July 6, 2010
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
Lou Ford likes to beat and kill women. He also seems to get a genuine kick out of beating and killing men, but his real passion is putting a hurt on women--preferably women who love and trust him. This makes him a terrifying vision of unchecked misogyny.
Can such a character be presented accurately and ethically in a work of fiction, much less a work of pulp fiction? When Jim Thompson created Lou Ford and placed him in the 1952 novel THE KILLER INSIDE ME he seemed to invite this question, but like most of Thompson's work the book missed the attention of serious critics by mile. The casual perusal of a drugstore paperback spinner in the fifties would have summoned up an endless series of pulp novels featuring copious sex and violence. The male ego thrashed about in a lot of these books and took out much of its anger on the female body, so at first glance THE KILLER INSIDE ME seemed like just another book on the pulp rack. Yet even in this anything goes kind of atmosphere--an atmosphere in which the cover art and blurb advertised violence toward women-- THE KILLER INSIDE ME stood out over time. Its notoriety came from Thompson's mastery of two voices, the public Lou Ford and the private Lou Ford. To the citizens of Central City, Texas, Lou Ford is a Andy Griffith-type good ol' boy deputy sheriff, amiable and armed only with an unlimited supply of cornball cliches. This facade, however, is the real Lou Ford's satire of small town goodness. The man underneath is a bubbling cauldron of malice and resentment, but--and this is the key to the book's power--this private voice is devoid of passion. Ford narrates his secret career of assault and murder like a hardboiled detective narrating the process of an investigation. He isn't reflective or particularly preoccupied by his own psychology, but--then again--neither are most serial killers. Asked once how he could make a sport of killing women, the serial killer Ted Bundy told an interviewer, "Because I'm the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you'll ever meet." That's not much of an answer, of course, but it had the virtue of being true.
All of this leads us to Michael Winterbottom's new adaptation of Thompson's book. The movie stars Casey Affleck as Ford, Jessica Alba as a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland with whom Ford has a secret relationship, and Kate Hudson as Ford's girlfriend. The film also features a stellar supporting cast of excellent character actors like Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Ned Beatty, and Tom Bower. Good old Bill Pullman even drops by for a scene as a shrink (since his fifteen minutes as a leading man have passed, here's hoping that Pullman makes more such appearances). I've been talking off and on about this film since it was in preproduction. I'm a big Jim Thompson fan, and while I've never especially been a fan of Winterbottom, I am a happy admirer of star Casey Affleck. The film arrives, however, in a swirl of controversy. (To achieve actual controversy in the age of internet pornography and unending war is some kind of accomplishment.) Several critics have condemned the film's mix of sex and violence, and the theater where I saw the film refused to admit anyone under 17 even though the film is rated R.
This kind of publicity foregrounds an obvious question (how disturbing is it?) while pushing a far more important question to the background (what is it trying to do with the representation of life that it gives us?).
To the first question: it's quite disturbing. An air of menace hangs over everything. Violence and sex mingle again and again (to such an extent that eros and thanos seem like conjoined twins). And there are two separate scenes of a woman being pummeled until skin hangs from her face or her bladder bursts. This is a violent film, and not the kind of casual violence we're used to seeing in most movies. If you don't flinch in disgust at these scenes, there's something wrong with you.
So that's settled: the film is unsettling. But what about it? To what end is it attempting to unsettle us?
I'm not sure. In 1952, Thompson was shining a light into some very dark corners of the American psyche. In 2010, there's not much innocence left to loose. Most of us lock our doors out of fear. We hear stories everyday about brutality and rape and murder. Even the fecundity of Thompson's dark imagination would not have been able to keep pace with modern life. The news that some people are sick bastards ain't news, and calling the world a sick shithole is itself something of a cliche.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME is so well acted and produced that it nearly succeeds in obscuring the underlying reality that it's not saying much. Casey Affleck has become one of our best young actors, and his performance here is electric. At 35, he still looks like he's not too far out of high school, and his voice is one of the few distinctive voices left in movies: a squeaky I-just-hit-puberty mumble that seems perpetually positioned on the verge of an angry sob. He's an inspired choice for Lou Ford--not really jovial enough in his public presence, but simmering underneath with resentments. When he flashes his toothy grin to deflect attention from his true feelings, Affleck gets close to the heart of Lou Ford's double-persona. And yet...
One can't help looping back around to the question of the close ups. Why the close ups of Jessica Alba being punched repeatedly in the face? Why do they go on so long? The film needn't do this to horrify us. The first punch is horrifying. After that, it's just making the same point. (Violence is tricky. Less really is more.) A better question: why does she sit still for this beating instead of fighting back? Alba gives as good a performance as the part lets her, but Joyce Lakeland is little more than a body for Lou Ford to copulate with and kill. Is that how Lou sees her? I don't know, but it is how the film treats her.
Let's not dodge the main question, though: why does she sit still for her beating? The movie explains. After Lou has turned her face into a bloody gruel (all except for her lips, oddly), Joyce tells him she loves him. This is a departure from the novel, and it's a fatal one for the film. Firstly, it's a stupid addition. Joyce has just had her face hammered into little more than a sack of bone fragments. It's idiotic for her to tell her torturer that she loves him, even if she does. Abused women sometimes love the horrible men who abuse them, but people don't say "I love you" through broken teeth. It rings false. Yet the film plays this line straight because Winterbottom and his collaborators have made a fundamental mistake. The film takes the sadomasochistic relationship between Lou and Joyce and turns it into a kind of sick romance. He loves her. She loves him. He's insane, though, so he kills her.
In a weird way, this is actually something of a cop out. Thomspon's Ford is goofier, livelier, and finally colder than Winterbottom's interpretation. He has the essential component of every psychopath: a total lack of empathy. People aren't people to him. Yet in this film, Lou has real feelings for Joyce. They're sick, twisted, wound up with sex (and explained, sorta, in some slapdash Freudianisms toward the end), but they're real. Lou, in his way, loves Joyce. This addition only subtracts from the character. Instead of clarifying Lou, the film tries to apologize for him. He loves her but he's sick...
This leaves the audience with very little to hold onto. What are we to make of this unconvincing romance at the center of the film? And what, in the name of God, are we supposed to make of Joyce Lakeland? She's a sex object, a punching bag, and an all-forgiving victim--three variations on a fantasy. She's not a plausible human, though.
Thompson's book pulls off the same trick Hitchcock managed ten years later when he made PSYCHO: it puts you in the head of a killer. The thing about Lou Ford is that he doesn't really think he's all that complicated. He's wrong about this, of course, but he's got a clarity of purpose. He's got a scheme, and he goes about it with the vigor of a cheerful nihilist. For him, life is a sick joke that only he gets. Winterbottom and Affleck give us a Lou Ford who is, to a degree, tormented. He tries to console Joyce as he's pounding her face in ("It's almost over, baby"), and while this mix of cruelty and concern is genuinely upsetting to watch, it strikes a hollow note.
As it happens, over the weekend I re-read Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN about a pair of Mormon fundamentalist brothers who murdered a woman and her baby. The scene of the murder is chilling because the only witnesses are the murderers themselves, and their descriptions are told in flat monotones. They simply did not regard this woman and her baby as human beings. They reminded me, in some ways, of Thompson's Lou Ford.
The film's addition of the Lou/Joyce romance feels, in the end, like an attempt to humanize Ford. This only has the effect, however, of making him less human.
Here's the trailer for the film.