Monday, July 5, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

In 1952, Lion Books published Jim Thompson's first paperback original, The Killer Inside Me. This noir Western is told from the point of view of Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford, a sadistic psychopath who tries to hide his homicidal career behind a slow-witted, folksy, generous façade. Like many of Thompson's first-person narrators, Ford is a wry, witty, and cultured man with a clear view of society's ills and a gift for rationalizing murder. The Killer Inside Me ruthlessly parodies pulp clichés, among them the heroic masculinity of the Western marshal, the homespun simplicity of the populist leader, and the sexual conservatism of the hard-boiled detective. Ford blames his homicidal nature on sexual proclivities that he traces to a childhood trauma, but the story raises the possibility that his murders are completely calculated and self-serving acts of vindictiveness, independent of his sexual outlawry.

The Killer Inside Me
is so dependent on the first-person point of view and on being part of the genre it parodies that it really can't work outside the print medium. So it should come as no surprise that the new movie version of the novel is directed by Michael Winterbottom, the man who brought the equally unfilmable Tristram Shandy to the screen. Nor, given the subject matter, should it be news that siwoti in response to it (one commenter wrote, "To regard women as eager to be beaten to death is to regard them as other than human." I think it unlikely that women in JT are indeed "eager to be beaten to death," although a number of them are too trusting of men whom they know to be violent--a problem that does occur among human beings in real life). I found the film to be okay but far from brilliant: here are thoughts on its achievements and its major faults, with a note or two rebutting some claims that are wrong on the internet.

  1. Lou Ford. Casey Affleck is in fact five years older than Lou Ford. But he does a very good job, as do most of the other performers, except possibly Jessica Alba as a whore whose interest in masochistic sex seems to rekindle Lou's long-dormant insanity.
  2. Violence. The movie depicts violent crimes and their consequences in a very literal manner; it shies away from trivializing portrayals of violence; it never invites the viewer to say, "Fuck yeah!" to or laugh at the violence. Indeed, the casting of screen idols Alba and Kate Hudson as the victims of the most brutal aggression helps to make the already-appalling violence even more disturbing.
  3. Setting. Nice design and cinematography. The mid-fifties Texas boomtown is depicted in loving detail. The credits suggest that Oklahoma, proud of having given the world Jim Thompson, helped a lot.
  4. Fidelity. The screenplay is a very literal, almost scene-by-scene, adaptation of the novel's plot, with a bunch of dialogue and some voiceover taken directly from the book.
  1. Tone. The objectivity of the film medium makes it less flexible in tone than a first-person print narrative by a psychotic, or perhaps psychopathic, killer. Plus there's the issue of how flexible the imagination of today's audiences can be. Someone being wrong on the internet wrote, "Evidently most Americans can identify with a psychopath: I cannot." In other words, a moviegoer expects not just to be interested in or curious about movie characters but to "identify" with a movie's central character, or find that character "relatable"; and once you "identify," you're supposed to be in sympathy with all of a character's actions.* So, if the movie had included more of the cutting social criticism from Lou Ford's speeches, or even such witticisms as "It's as easy as nailin' your balls to a stump and fallin' off backwards," I guess the "identifying" audience would too easily cheer for his murders. But the wrenching sense of seeing an attractive and intelligent guy whom you've been sympathizing with do awful things to people is an important part of reading Thompson; and the movie ends up diluting that aesthetic feature.
  2. Context. A 1952 reader would know about Mike Hammer and John Wayne and Philip Marlowe and could recognize what kind of masculinity was being parodied. Cowboy hat notwithstanding, I don't know whether today's viewers have those kinds of referents.
  3. Textual Politics. When you deal with a story in which the use of misogynist violence is so central, you have to know how to make antimisogynist decisions so that depictions of misogyny don't become manifestations of misogyny. It seems to me that the filmmakers fail twice on that front: in the novel, not only is Lou's "sickness" called into question, his father plays a role in his initial trauma. In the movie, all we see of his origin story involves a woman whom filmgoers will assume to be his mother: cherchez la femme. And they put some dialogue into a female character's mouth toward the end that could be taken to reinforce misogynist victim-blaming.
  4. Argument. Jim Thompson was a socialist who liked to depict how capitalist society fucks people up and/or empowers fucked-up people to hurt others; he was most often interested in how men were given few options other than to become victims and agents of the system, and how the ethos of competition distorted people's understanding of each other by promoting a "get them before they get you" attitude. In the absence of Lou's inner monologue, I don't think one can convey those ideas too well. Some of the plot, involving Lou's double-crossing the construction magnate whose negligence killed his brother, suggests a social critique; and there's nothing to prevent a viewer from seeing how almost everyone's working solely for his or her self-interest (or perhaps being stuck in a one-dimensional social role--in the final scene, Lou does get to comment on how clichéd all the people around him are) is what enables Lou to do the harm he does. But one ends up more focused on how evil Lou Ford is. Paradoxically, while unable to stick with the pov of the nihilistic central character, the movie ends up enforcing the nihilistic world view that, in the novel, is only one of a few possible interpretations.
So: Good-looking and at times witty movie, reverent toward its source material, with many good performances, that works as a mood piece and a character-study but not as social criticism, unless you regard misanthropy as a critique. And be aware if you plan to watch it that the filmmakers have decided to render two scenes of violence against women very vividly. There is decent commentary here and there in the review media: Not Roger at the Chicago Sun-Times has some thoughtful (and some thoughtless) remarks, starting with a nice account of what noir fiction feels like; but more interesting than the review itself is his discussion with the commenters: "To say that the movie doesn't explain murderous sociopathic behavior is . . . not the same thing as saying this movie offers no insight into Lou's character." And I very much liked the review in the Everett Herald (Go Aquasox!).

*The practice of writing characters for audiences that make simplistic judgments also creates a problem in the presentation of one of the women in the story. The Thompson protagonist, in The Killer Inside Me, in After Dark, My Sweet, in Savage Night, and in A Hell of A Woman, goes through an anagnoresis where he realizes that the woman he's regarded as a threat and a harridan (and in some cases killed) was a regular, struggling human being like anyone else. But the movie cannot, for example, present Amy Stanton as particularly annoying, lest it signal to the audience that they're expected to sympathize with Lou's wanting her out of the way. So we get less understanding of Lou's perceptions, and she gets very little in the way of a personality.

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