The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Q&A with director Michael Winterbottom

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.


  1. Thanks Tom. I haven’t seen the film, so will withhold judgement on what is already proving to be a controversial addition to the Winterbottom oeuvre. But your blogpost raises an important point about Q&A sessions more generally. These Q&A sessions often drift into discussions of technical practicalities, which of course are a crucial part of the filmmaking process. But more and more I wonder if such a shift is motivated by a reluctance to press the director – ‘in the flesh’ as it were – to address the ethical implications of their work. In my experience, too often Q&A audiences politely steer clear of thorny subjects such as these in favour of a cycle of compliments and non-threatening queries. Is this the fabled British politeness at work – a version of treating the guest at the table nicely – or a symptom of a more general aversion to confronting the politically troubling aspects of cultural representation?

    • Tom and Lisa, you have raised what is slowly but surely becoming a personal bugbear of mine, Q&A sessions. I have also noticed in several such sessions a move away from addressing the implications of the work in question, and towards questions of personal taste, etc. Perhaps this quite unfortunate tendency is not unrelated to the DVD extras that Tom mentions – perhaps viewers are more attuned to finding out more about extra-textual details, as provided by director’s commentaries, Making Of featurettes, etc.

      What I have found particularly problematic in a number of Q&A sessions with directors, producers, actors and broadcasters working within British TV is when members of the audience ask questions/make comments along the lines of, ‘Why doesn’t British TV make a quality show like The Wire/Mad Men/[insert recent high-end US drama series]?!’ This misses the point in two ways: 1. It misses out on the opportunity to get the professionals to reflect on their own work. 2. There are different kinds of quality, shaped by different broadcasting contexts. The Wire/Mad Men/etc are very good examples of what they are – US high-budget serialised series. British television, because of the particular ways in which it has developed, can offer different kinds of quality drama. So, the question to ask could be, ‘Why doesn’t US TV make something like 5 Daughters?’ But I am going off-topic…

  2. Very interesting post Tom. I completely agree that the tone of the film was very complicated – I definitely felt unsure of how to respond to the film, and feel that I need to watch it again before I can understand how I’m being placed in relation to the characters and action.

    This question of a split between what the film is doing, and what the characters are doing in relation to tone is especially striking, and not to mention extremely difficult to untangle. There were moments in the film which stuck out to me as more difficult to reconcile with character, as opposed to narrative (or what the film is trying to achieve I suppose). One of those was the initial beating of Joyce by Lou which then turns into sex – although I understood that the film was trying to place this as the seed of their attraction to one another, I experienced it much more (and I feel like this was strongly due to the way it was presented, not just my own aversion to violence) as her being distressed (all those close-ups on her face), not enjoying it or there even being an inkling of her possibly enjoying it whilst he whips her. I almost felt like there was a way in which her performance and the way it was presented could offer the possibility that her embrace of him comes as a defensive effort to stop the beating (Almost, but not quite, like the complicated way in which Susan George’s character Amy responds to Charlie forcing himself on her in Straw Dogs). I know this is taking it a little far (and as Scott pointed out to me, there is a sense in which there is a change in Lou that she is perhaps responding to), but that small possibility that I felt was there made it very difficult for me to straightforwardly accept the rest of their relationship – I guess I felt as though the film was asking me to take too much on faith.
    As for the violence – I agree it was well handled and appropriately disturbing (though again the balance of Joyce being ready to slap Lou around at first, but completely unable to fight back later troubled me in terms of characterisation – but maybe this is a problem of the book, that she is very much the masochist to his sadist?). [This is also a problem that the film is (or isn’t) dealing with – is it interrogating such rigid gender dynamics, or merely presenting them? I guess Tania Modleski would have a field day] My main objection was to the endless sex scenes, which I felt were too much, but did feel of the character’s perspective, so I guess that is my problem and not the film’s. One thing I would say, is that it is interesting that no one seems to be willing to comment on race – the casting of Jessica Alba as Joyce and Kate Hudson as Amy presents a very striking racial split considering their social status, and eventual fates – I guess this is not something in the book, and maybe too much of a thorny issue?

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