Last Friday I caught Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me on its opening night @ IFC. (Rather than recapitulate a press release, the reader is referred here for a synopsis—it’s as good as any other.) As someone who greatly enjoyed the Jim Thompson novel, I was looking forward to it with a mixture of curiosity and unease. It didn’t disappoint on the latter front; I felt more uncomfortable sitting next to my fellow theatergoers than I have at a movie since Irreversible. Along with Noe’s film, The Killer Inside Me is likely to be remembered as one of the most violent and offensive works of the past decade, a new entry in the growing trend that Hoberman recently called ‘the new realism’: movies of unrelenting brutality that take the human body as their playground, shocking the viewer out of his or her spectacle-benumbed complacency by systematically abusing and destroying the one realm of screen space he or she still identifies with. I recall an anecdote told by Nagisa Oshima after he observed the behavior of audiences at early screenings of his art-porno classic In the Realm of the Senses. When Sada severs Kichizo’s genitals following a fatal bout of erotic asphyxiation, the director noticed several of the men in attendance clutching their own groins in order to shield themselves from further violence.
Thompson’s book lends itself wonderfully to the screen in some ways, yet in other regards it continues to elude proper adaptation. I have often felt that of all genres, the crime novel was destined to find a home in Hollywood; in a beautiful marriage, cinema found pulp and pulp found the cinema. As a fairly literalist medium, movies have a special affinity for the kind of spare, ‘hardboiled’ prose invented by Hammett and Chandler and kept alive in Thompson’s writing. Characters are sketched in brief, vivid strokes, their language and physiognomy all but determining the course of action they follow in a way quite similar to the typage of actors found in realms as diverse as Eisenstein and Hawks (ie., policemen are burly, thieves are wiry). Even the origins of Thompson’s novel resemble the production values of the Hollywood assembly line: The Killer Inside Me grew out of a synopsis the author chose from a batch of story ideas penned by editors at Lion Books and presented to him by literary agent Arnold Hano in 1952.
Of course, the problem with bringing text to screen is the inherent danger of overliteralizing the material. There is something haunting about “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v” that is simply lost when we look at Humphrey Bogart: a sense of imaginative absurdity, impossibility, abstraction that a real face can never truly match.
Similarly, when sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) beats in the face of a prostitute (Jessica Alba) until her visage is little more than an amalgam of fleshy patches protruding through streaks of blood, her cheek collapsing under the pressure of a gloved fist, something is lost in the transition from Thompson’s much more evocative phraseology: “I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once… I brought an uppercut up from the floor. There was a sharp cr-aack! and her whole body shot upward, and came down in a heap.” What is lost is the sheer cartoonish play of language—in the absence of truly graphic violence, the reader is forced to imagine just what a face-turned-pumpkin might look like, a body which crosses the threshold from animate object to rag doll in the briefest of moments.
It seems wrong, or perhaps unnecessary, for Winterbottom to present this scene in such horrific detail—close-ups of a bloody face, the absurd amplification of sound. The action is framed in such a way that the viewer too feels pummeled, an effect akin to Noe’s notorious rape scene in his extended sick joke of a movie. But once again, one has to question the need for these male filmmakers—Winterbottom, Noe, Haneke as well—to “rape” their audience, so to speak; the film victimizes us in a way that Thompson’s novel never does, choosing aesthetic assault over the infinitely more insidious identification which takes place whenever we are forced to spend time with an affable serial killer. I would also question the analogy drawn by a Salon reviewer between this physical barbarism and “the moment when the film appears to break in the projector during Bergman's Persona,” becoming “a rupture in the film's narrative of reality.” It’s a stretch (among other things), but suffice it to say that Bergman’s gesture is an attempt to reveal—however schematically—the material properties of the medium. Winterbottom’s scene is the height of mystification, aiming to return the viewer to that state of undifferentiated perception characteristic of early moviegoers—at least in Sadoul’s unverified claim that turn-of-the-century attendees at the Lumieres’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat ducked for cover when the engine pulled into the station.
Overall, I suppose I liked the movie, but I found it sad that despite the liberal quotation of Thompson’s prose, it somehow lost most of its wit. Casey Affleck has the right face for the part, though his delivery tends toward an irritating mumble-halfway-to-whine which makes comprehension difficult. The two female leads, Jess Alba and Kate Hudson, are lifeless parade floats—though I am intrigued by this mentality which tells an actress that it is okay to let her character be savagely shagged and beaten within an inch of death, but that it is not okay to show her tits onscreen. Like much noir, The Killer Inside Me is at its best when dealing with caricatures and bit players. Ned Beatty (remember him?) as corrupt construction tycoon/union buster Chester Conway is a dead ringer, while Elias Koteas’ corrupt union official is equally scathing. Once the director pulls back from his first wave of atrocity, the film becomes (like the book) an enjoyable critique of pornographic fantasy, male sadism, robber baron economics and shoddy law enforcement that basically enables our sheriff to kill and kill again. At times it veers completely into kitsch, particularly in its pop psychology, Biblical references and apocalyptic denouement. But again, in regard to the conclusion (which I won’t spoil), there seems to be something too literal in what Thompson never clearly delineates as either reality or psycho-masturbatory fantasy. At times, Lou seems more like a Des Esseintes than an old wrangler type, languishing in his own depravity within the comforts of a private study. Underscoring the film’s high/low aesthetic by alternating between opera and country music was really a bit too ham-handed, even for Winterbottom. It’s all very unheimlich, but the nuance went out with the bathwater.
However, the new film is miles beyond its previous incarnation. Glutton for punishment? Try Burt Kennedy’s 1976 fiasco, a rendering of The Killer Inside Me starring—I’m serious—Stacy Keach. Though Affleck isn’t perfect, his performance has the taut, coiled-spring energy of a James Mason (see Bigger Than Life) or a Bogart (see In a Lonely Place), a mass of well-composed rage ready to disengage at any moment; one feels the anger emanate from each movement, misanthropy spreading throughout the room like a noxious cloud. Keach is a big dumb lumbering body, playing far too much on the character’s well-I’m-just-pleased-as-puddin’ façade without much attempt to hint at the sinister embers beneath (a strained dialogue about schizophrenia only exacerbates this contradiction between acting and source material). Pacing is a serious problem; it takes an hour to portray what the 2010 version accomplishes in a crisp 15 minutes, yet it also somehow manages to leave out the most important details, making the story almost completely incoherent. Lou’s psychodrama is transformed from a sadomasochistic romp with original sin to a tepid, vulgarized Oedipal narrative that fails to explain, well, anything. This was where cast and crew could really run wild, yet the B-lister never rises above hackneyed shots of dripping faucets (for obsessive thoughts) and dissonant music (to symbolize madness, of course). Come on, they didn’t call Thompson a dimestore Dostoyevsky for nothing! The idea that one could murder without any real reason seems to have been far too disturbing for the filmmakers, so they had to go and muck it all up with generic motivations like family disgrace and jail time. And while I’m not entirely at ease with the level of violence used in the new version, I found myself yearning for a more visceral experience when Lou’s infamous belt-whipping is replaced by a few candid slaps in the face of Susan Tyrell, or when the reality of a brutal battering gives way to “death” as the result of a single punch. Why bother bringing Thompson to the screen at all? Why waste time with scenic horseback riding and wistful music when one might do infinitely more? It couldn’t have been just to force the great John Carradine to act so far, far below his level.
Regardless, Burt Kennedy’s film will be remembered for having one of the most singularly absurd shoot-outs ever laid to reel. Keach is shot in one arm, pivots 180 degrees, gets shot in the back, spins around to his original position, and then promptly falls backward like a log into the muddy terrain…
Yeah. You’re probably right. Just stick with the book.