The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom

The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom

Tom Jennings is disappointed with two films which purport to illuminate and critique violence against women. Part 1: The Killer Inside Me.

Crimes and Mr Manners. Film review – Tom Jennings
The Killer Inside Me adapts a 1952 story by Jim Thompson, the ‘dime-store Dostoyevsky’ widely lauded as the best second-wave noir novelist. Director Michael Winterbottom’s continuing exploration of film genre was intended here to respect the source despite the difficulty of transforming dark literary interior monologue into equivalently complex visual portrayal – rather than, say, superficial shock-horror or simplistic cheap melodrama. So Casey Affleck’s impeccable affably dim demeanour conceals Deep-South Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford’s raw hatred nurtured in a miserable middle-class background – ever-ready with a battery of good ol’ boy cliches bolstering exaggerated gallantry bogus in its sheer overkill, gleefully deployed to discursively bludgeon those who’ve known him all his life and believe they know who he is. If ‘manners maketh the man’, his pretence of concern for others only thinly veils narcissistic self-pity which readily evaporates in the face of imagined slights to the grandiose personal mythology typical of borderline syndromes – in this case murderously asserted to the point of self-annihilation. Professional then personal entanglement with prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba) punctures his character armour to unleash suppressed hostility – undermining a bland facade of carefully constructed but fatally fragile boundaries represented most poignantly in childhood sweetheart Amy (Kate Hudson), for whom he reserves fiercest contempt.
Now, although the twisted social niceties emanating from Ford’s pathological orientation are compellingly and convincinglyly drawn, its supposed origin in troubled childhood with sadistic, domineering father is surely a sub-Hitchcockian McGuffin – as if flagellation-tinged premature sexualisation must yield maniacal brutality (or, more generally, abuse inevitably beget abusiveness). While it functions to contextualise Ford’s sexual proclivities and later modus operandi, Winterbottom treats this cod-Freudian red-herring as the tale’s moral core. Consequently the passage from first-person narrative to fully realised small town milieu expunges from the screenplay much of the pungent socio-political commentary that the author so skilfully wove in. For example, here’s the anti-hero’s rejoinder to one of his patsies dubbing him fair and honest, “a square Joe”:
“We’re living in a funny world, kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians ... The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the Good People are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us ... If we all had all we wanted to eat, we’d crap too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry ... That’s about the size of some of the arguments I’ve heard” (Orion Books edition, 2002, p.105).
Ford adds that most avoid awareness of how screwed up things are by internalising the rules of respectability and scapegoating those who don’t conform. Thompson thus plausibly accounts for particular horrors and hypocrisies entirely from the perspective of a homicidal sociopath, yet ascribing equal weight to both the biographical genesis of madness and the central role of conventional social structures and institutions in nurturing such outcomes irrespective of specific human weakness.
The film surrenders such sophistication in a vividly kitsch realisation of 1950s West Texas – meticulously designed visuals and soundtrack supplanting, rather than supplementing, the main character’s stream-of-consciousness. The book’s strong sense of alienated perception is lost along with focus on what Ford ‘chooses’ to attend to. The latter now appears as transparent reality – good-natured, well-meaning naifs assuming the best in others, allowing evil in by the back door (the usual conservative conclusion, implicitly soliciting more draconian protection). However, the spectacularisation of extreme symptoms and trangressions ignores Thompson’s disquieting insistence on the inherently collusive nature of mainstream morality, postulating continuity between exploitative societal hierarchy and individual monstrosity. Winterbottom instead emphasises lurid exceptions masquerading among comforting norms, thereby ironically parroting the psychotic logic of detached compulsion which drives ‘freaks’ like Ford as well as other exemplary embodiments of capitalism’s congenital antisociality.
The most painfully serious casualties of The Killer Inside Me’s cinematic gaze are its twinned femmes fatales, whose batterings to death are anatomised with motbid fascination by the camera but merit mere workmanlike paragraphs in the book. This utterly skews their role illustratiing the classic macho stereotype of femininity – the madonna/whore dichotomy dissolved by dangerous autonomous passion: Joyce risking expulsion by polite society which craves her, seeking the covert endorsement of power; Amy demanding its overt affirmation to avoid the former’s fate. Their killer’s conduct stands for patriarchal relations generally, where the sadomasochistic perversities characterising domination are officially reinforced through denial – desire being fatal because it must be repressed and displaced into necessarily partial, static, rigid pathways destined always to frustrate and escalate. But, objectifying Ford’s viewpoint, Winterbottom obscures more nuanced interpretations of what the characters signify, explaining the women’s passive complicity as personality defects complementing his protagonist’s. Articulating as fact what Thompson questioned, the film materialises masculine control as natural order – mirroring the psychological purpose of a fetish and rewarding feminist complaints that the misogyny the director claims to be moralising about is, effectively, reproduced or even glorified.
But Ford also serves as model for the camouflage of false self as constitutive of sexuality and identity in class stratification, where offences to pious propriety refuse to stay swept under the carpet and directly or indirectly jeopardise the interests of the powerful. Then sickness is treated by re-establishing the conditions which precipitated it in the first place, reinstating the illusion or simulation of health (entirely appropriate, then, that his father was a General Practitioner). Closing the gap between his warped appreciation of his lovers (projecting desires onto them which may only awkwardly fit) and their own potential agendas (which the book left open by omission), the film achieves the seemingly overwhelming hopelessness and misanthropy Thompson is alternately despised and admired for. Whereas his pessimism and disgust equally (if more subtly) pinpoint the incapacity of bourgeois society ever to benefit those men and women at the bottom of its heap – a conclusion foreclosed here by the director and critics alike.
The Killer Inside Me is released on DVD on 27th September. Part 2 reviews The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 17, September 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Sep 15 2010 09:20


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