Spoiler alert: this post contains some major plot details. (Though whether the revelations of murders of major characters in a film called ‘The Killer Inside Me’ can truly be called ‘spoilers’ is another thing. Given the furore surrounding the film, that these include horrific violence towards women will also be widely-known.)
On Monday night (24/05/10), I attended the advance screening of The Killer Inside Me followed by Q&A with director Michael Winterbottom and producer Andrew Eaton. The film lived up to its billing as a sometimes violent but very faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson’s extraordinary (and pretty nasty) book. The film was complex enough (and brilliant enough in parts) for me to want to resist fixing my judgments of it, so I’ll limit myself to sketching some initial thoughts on the nature and the tone of its violence. (1)
Lou Ford’s (Casey Affleck) murder of Jessica Alba’s Joyce Lakeland was extremely shocking in its pacing and delivery, even for jaded viewers – I flinched several times and my friend next to me visibly did too. Winterbottom made the (I thought) justified point that violence should make you feel awful and should not be easily consumable. Joyce’s beating certainly fulfilled this aim and felt justified by the film and its source text. I know others have and will find it harder to justify as an individual scene of violence and, indeed, other aspects of the film make its justification harder.
Though much less graphic and much shorter, Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson’s) murder illustrates the importance of tone in the effects/affects of movies and of the wider patterns a film sets up. The shot of Amy’s prostrate body on the floor, skirt hitched up over her head and pool of piss spreading out from under her was one of the most shocking in the film. As a single shot (or as part of an isolatable series of shots), I might have judged it amongst the film’s best – best in the sense that it perfectly reflected the deadened, dissociated (more of which below) stare of the lover that killed her. This coldness is an aspect of its tone. But tone in this film shifts wildly and my ethical judgments of the shot quickly trumped those of its aesthetics (as a dramatisation of a point of view).
We moved quite quickly to the chasing down and shooting of the vagrant (Brent Briscoe) set to a jaunty Texas swing soundtrack. The effect was intentionally comic. In response to a question about the film’s sometimes surprising choices in scoring at this and other moments, Winterbottom suggested that the comedy was meant to reflect Lou’s dissociative attitude – i.e. he is a sociopath who is unable to associate his own actions with their effect on others and therefore the incongruous music is in keeping with Ford’s ‘sickness’. However, the sexual politics of the murders are harder to square. The women are dispatched in a brutal style (Lou’s style, the film’s style) while the murder of male characters are kept off-screen or are played for farce.
Winterbottom’s justification for this moment and for the film more widely (see the June 2010 Sight and Sound article on the film) is that it presents Ford’s distorted view of the world. However, jaunty Texas swing on the soundtrack feels like an imposition from outside of Ford – the tone is experienced as the film’s, not the characters. I wouldn’t want to suggest that soundtracks of this kind (as opposed to original scores) are unsuited to presenting the points of views of characters. However, Winterbottom’s choices for his soundtrack and his reactions to the emotive responses to his film suggest that he cannot quite associate the tone of what he presents with their effect on the audience. An ambitious film, a tremendously difficult book to adapt (faithfully), the tone of The Killer Inside Me is, I think, its most troublesome aspect.
A further note about the Q& A: If people want to ask, ‘how many takes do you usually film?’, or ‘how was that fire filmed? Was it mostly done in “post”?’, please wait for the DVD extras – they always give us this information. The banality of some of the questions was infuriating and the questions were (depressingly) gendered – we had to wait for some women to press Winterbottom on the tone and extent of the violence against women in The Killer Inside Me, the elephant in the room that the fanboys seemed genuinely oblivious to.
Notes: (1) This is only the very beginnings of a sketch of some thoughts on the tone of this film. The issue of tone is discussed at length by Douglas Pye, ‘Movies and Tone’, in Gibbs, J. and Pye, D. (eds), Close-Up 02, London: Wallflower Press, 2007, 1-80.