Last night I saw “The Killer Inside Me”. Well aware of all the hoo-ha and hoopla surrounding Winterbottom’s graphic portrayal of the central character’s misogynistic violence it hadn’t been top of my ‘must-see’ list. I’m not a fan of violence and have very little wish to see Jessica Alba get her face punched in. However I was out with friends and they wanted to see it and that seemed as a good a reason as any to quieten my qualms and see the latest work by one of this country’s most prolific and provocative filmmakers.
Michael Winterbottom is a hard man to pin down. Working in tandem with Andrew Eaton the pair have made a staggeringly diverse collection of films in a staggeringly short space of time. Since 1995 the pair have made 17 feature films and 2 documentaries ranging from the steely “Welcome to Sarajavo” to the adventurously silly “Cock and Bull Story”. His genre hopping gives a sense of the man as a modern Kubrick, keen to stamp his mark on all of cinema’s key styles. However whilst Kubrick’s films are all Kubrick’s first and cinema’s second, Winterbottom is not so easy to find within his work. Picking 17 films at random from a DVD shelf you’d be forgiven for not realising they were all by the same guy.
There are though cracks in the impassive mask of professionalism. Towards the end of “The Killer Inside Me” Casey Affleck’s psychotic Deputy Sheriff Lou says hallo to the massed ranks of people come to arrest him, coming to an armed grunt at the back of the group he says “Hank Butterbean… don’t say anything Hank I didn’t give you any lines”. Not quite as openly post-modernist as “24 Hour Party People”‘s central monologue or the attempt to put Tristram Shandy on screen in “Cock and Bull Story”, but never the less a moment of uncomfortable self-awareness from the character that he is merely that, and one that Winterbottom clearly delights in. Also there is an intensity to the sex scenes which litter the script and that almost righteous sense to the graphic depiction of Lou’s brutality which reminds you that Winterbottom also made “9 Songs” with it’s many and controversially genuine sex scenes. Clearly Michael Winterbottom likes to make his audience feel disturbed not only by what they are watching but often by the very act of sitting in a cinema and paying money for the fun of it.
He also is the perfect man to make a film about a sociopath. Completely told from Lou’s perspective “The Killer Inside Me” is a very compelling portrait of a man distanced from society and stuck in a cycle of abuse. The perspective is probably why there has been such fuss about the violence, it gives Winterbottom very little room for directorialising, for comment, for reassuring you that he’s not asking you to condone what you’re watching. I imagine this is part of what drew him to the project in the first place.
Utterly horrible as the deaths of the two female leads are, they are hardly going to raise a hair for audiences used to last decade’s torture porn. What does cause problems is the way that both characters are complicit in and generally encouraging of the violent treatment Lou gives them. The ideas that a woman might enjoy being whipped or can still love a man who beats her more than even she wanted are rather harder to swallow than the idea that a monster may want to lock a girl in a dungeon and cut her to bits. Cinema likes it’s victims to be helpless and clearly either deserving or innocent. In “The Killer Inside Me” Winterbottom presents an entire society which is, in someway, complicit with Lou’s shuddering sexual aggression. At times it feels like almost everyone is in someway asking for it, and it takes Lou to point out that “no one has it coming, that’s no one sees it coming”.
Fundamentally it seems that if Winterbottom is commenting on these events then it is to draw your eye to the wider cycle. We get a sense that Lou was not only abusive as a child but abused. Though nothing in the film ever states it, if we are to look for justifications for the relationship between Lou and Alba’s prostitute Joyce, then surely her acceptance and encouragement of his violence is an expression of the abuse which put her in this situation in the first place. Personally I could have done with more of this, more of a sense of how this awful situation happened.
It reminded me strongly of “Double Indemnity”, a twisty murderous plot where lovers turn in on each other and a perfect plan slowly unravels. The difference being that “Double Indemnity” leaves you feeling sorry for a tragically flawed man. Suffocated by his position in a stultifying society he has only managed to put the noose round his own neck and the film then grinds out his slow demise in gripping detail. In “The Killer Inside Me” the intensity lessens as the film progresses. Lou seems less desperate to escape justice and more bored by the complexity he has created. By the end, as reality appears to fall apart completely, I was left equally distanced and I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of it all was.
I don’t like to admit this as it seems astonishingly old fashioned but I love a film to mean something. I want to know why the team behind it wanted to spend so much time and money making it. Granted when you’re Michael Winterbottom and you knock ‘em out one a year it’s less of an emotional and financial investment but the ending of this film is so fuzzy it left me wondering quite what the point of it all had been. Was it really just to make me feel as laconically hateful of women as misogynistic sociopath? Is that enough? I can get that emotion by watching Loose Women (“…and coming up after the break we’ll be wondering out loud if the Pankhurst’s struggle had really been worth the effort, if this is the best we can do with our freedom should we perhaps give back the vote and men, they snore a bit don’t they!”)
Call me a hectoring old lefty but I’ve never agreed with Sam Goldwyn’s dictum that “If you want to send a message call Western Union”. Every film, even those about unmotived acts of violence, has a message. “The Killer Inside Me” showcases a chillingly brilliant Casey Affleck and is a great vehicle for both Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. It is well paced, good to look at and pleasantly disturbing and confrontational. But one last directorial trope Winterbottom cannot quite erase is a jet black and very British sense of humour. One of Lou’s victim’s nearly escapes him when he slips on a puddle of urine expelled in the death throws of his fiancee and later a trooper rebukes his officer for referring to Lou as a “sonofabitch” because “I don’t approve of anyone talking ill of a man’s mother”. As this sense of the ludicrousness of all the characters and their morals, hopes, and ideas slowly wriggles to the surface I did start to wonder if all this effort hadn’t merely gone into making another film in which Michael Winterbottom grins slyly and says “Hey guys, it’s just a fucking movie…”