Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is a nasty little noir novel about Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of a small Texas town, a seemingly nice guy hiding a "sickness" that eventually compels him to kill everyone he loves. In typical Thompson fashion, the prose is straightforward, the underlying themes thorny. Stanley Kubrick, who hired Thompson to write The Killing and Paths of Glory, famously called Killer "the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." (If you have not read the book, here's your cue to beware of spoilers.)
Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me is, as the 49-year-old, highly prolific British filmmaker puts it, "a very literal version" of Thompson's novel. Casey Affleck plays Lou, Kate Hudson is his long-term girlfriend, Amy, and Jessica Alba plays the prostitute Joyce, whose taste for rough sex flips a switch in Lou, setting off his killing spree. Winterbottom moved the action from 1952 to 1957 and shot in Oklahoma to take advantage of better tax credits, but his Killer is to-the-letter faithful to Thompson's where it counts, retaining much of the novel's dialogue and, most controversially, Thompson's complicated, disconcertingly alluring spin on mutually consensual violent sex, tipped over into repellent, absolutely nonconsensual and nonsexual fatal violence. Part in-your-face exploitation flick, part visually stunning, coolly seductive noir rounded out with borderline-snarky '50s period detail, the film is fully thrilling — if you know what you're getting into.
When the film premiered at Sundance in January, a loud segment of the audience, apparently unfamiliar with the novel's brutality, balked. "I don't understand how Sundance could book this movie," complained the first questioner at the premiere's Q & A, to a mix of applause and boos. "How dare you? How dare Sundance?" A media frenzy ensued, turning Winterbottom into the festival's unlikely bad-boy auteur, much to his own surprise.
"What I found weird at Sundance was [the suggestion] that by showing violence against women, it somehow promotes it," Winterbottom says, over a glass of white wine on a recent visit to Los Angeles. "That because it's horrible to watch, it's therefore immoral."
Amy's and Joyce's death scenes are necessarily explicit and extended, Winterbottom says, in order to convey the intensely complicated underpinnings of the action. "Amy loves Lou unconditionally, thinks she's running away with him, and he kills her. Joyce is the same. These are the people who offer the possibility of happiness, and he still destroys them. They are the most important moments. You feel much more emotionally involved than if it was just really quick. Bash, bash, bash, that would be better? That seems to me to be a perverse argument."
For all of his faithfulness, Winterbottom diverges from Thompson's take on the root cause of Lou's bad behavior. "Thompson gives very responsible explanations of Lou," Winterbottom says. "In a page and a half, he says, on the one hand, Lou's a child of sex abuse, and it comes from that, and on the other hand, he's schizophrenic. Which in a way are two contradictory explanations."
In the film, the formative instance of abuse that marks Lou for life is presented in hazy flashback, Lou's "abuser" kittenish and purring, the trauma fetishized. Winterbottom addresses schizophrenia somewhat by increasingly offering evidence that we're seeing a skewed version of the world through Lou's slanted eyes, but an unreliable narrator is a pretty standard noir device. For Winterbottom, Lou's crimes are more fascinating for the ways in which they defy any sort of logical explanation.
"Lou's violence is totally self-destructive," Winterbottom says. "Joyce and Amy, when Lou kills them, it's nothing that helps him in any way. It's totally perverse, it's totally pointless."
That pointlessness is the film's point — evil that can't be definitively explained is much more unsettling, because there's no definitive way to stop it. The Killer Inside Me more or less shares this theme with No Country for Old Men, which inspired much less vitriol. Of course, No Country didn't star two female movie stars better known for gracing the covers of ladies magazines than for their acting prowess; Javier Bardem's killer didn't seduce women with a mixture of escapist fantasy and sexual domination before killing them, and when he did dispatch his victims, the actual murder was over in a blink of an eye — he surely didn't take the time to beat them to death, all the while saying, "I'm so sorry baby. I love you. Good-bye!"
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Even creepier, Winterbottom normalizes his protagonist's personality split by calling attention to the dualities all around him. Lou's first scrap of internal monologue: "The trouble with growing up in a small town is everyone thinks they know who you are." That overfamiliarity breeds a blindness to behavior that falls outside of archetype — who would suspect that the prostitute wants to get married, that the schoolmarm is into being spanked, that the deputy sheriff is a serial killer? In this town, Lou says, he's expected to be "both a man and a gentleman" — something of a schizophrenic split in itself, and a classic noir dichotomy between hard and soft, dark and light.
Winterbottom underscores these splits with every stylistic choice. Lou's a fugitive hiding out in broad daylight, his crimes brightly lit and shot plainly, without the softening of artifice or ellipsis. That jaunty Texas swing on the sound track? Some of it is performed by Spade Cooley, a country star who beat his wife to death when she asked for a divorce. "That music felt connected to the story," Winterbottom notes. "People like Spade Cooley, their lives were similar — lots of violence. The story of the music is tragedy but with that bright, shiny, quite happy quality to it."
The Killer Inside Me is Winterbottom's first film shot in the States, but he's not a stranger to America as a loaded concept. Three of his last four films — The Road to Guantanamo, A Mighty Heart and The Shock Doctrine — focus on varieties of unanticipated collateral fallout from America's self-serving political actions and accompanying ideology. (The odd man out is 2008's Genova, a wonderfully nuanced family drama starring Colin Firth, which has never been released in the U.S. due to the collapse of distributor ThinkFilm.) To some extent, Killer is one of a piece with other recent Winterbottom films, as an exploration of the pitch-black flip side to bright Americana. To steal a line from the book and the film, "It's always lightest just before the dark."
"It's hard to get away from America," Winterbottom says, smiling wryly, though he maintains that Killer only uses the place to talk about people. File Killer in the same noir subgenre as something like Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place: It's an extreme parable of romantic self-destruction. "In noir, there are conventions, the world is very melodramatic, very extreme, but it's also kind of true in some way about the world — it's a parallel world," says the filmmaker. "A lot of people, in a very mundane way, behave like Lou behaves — they do things that are destructive, out of weakness, which are horrible to people. It seems to me that Thompson is trying to create a world that magnifies and dramatizes the way the real world is."