I wish I didn't have to focus primarily on the matter of its graphic violence, but Michael Winterbottom's controversial film of The Killer Inside Me is likely always going to be known first and foremost for its reputation as the movie in which Jessica Alba gets punched. A lot. Very hard. To the point where you can see skull exposed through the broken skin of her character's pummeled face (the guy who did Alba's prosthetic make-up also worked on Saw by the way). Even fifty years from now, when the infamous scene is considered tame by the standards of the time, it will be a main talking point in any historical readings of the film.
As for the present era, you may have heard about walk outs and Q&A tirades from its Sundance premiere, but experiencing the movie at its New York debut, I witnessed none of that. Whether it's because viewers here are tougher (sure, there were plenty of gasps and moans, but no mass exodus) or because the post-screening discussion excluded questions from the audience, due to time constraints, the crowd seemed far more upset ahead of the film's very late start as we had to wait for the celebrities to get through their red carpet parade for the gossip hounds wondering if Kate Hudson really got that rumored boob job or not.
The issue of the star appeal is surrounding my thoughts on The Killer Inside Me as much as, and really because of, the violence. And I'll get to why in just a second. First, you deserve a set up of the film itself: based on Jim Thompson's 1952 pulp masterpiece and adapted by John Curran, it follows the spiraling moral descent of deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a West Texas gentleman with a loving girlfriend (Hudson) and a small town community so superficially innocent that he needn't even carry a gun. Suddenly one day he falls for a prostitute (Alba), gets mixed up in a blackmail scheme and murder after cover-up murder is committed as his true sociopathic nature is reawakened.
Lou narrates his story, via Affleck's scratchy, mumbled drawl, in a nonchalant and somewhat oblivious manner that for me evoked Sissy Spacek in Badlands by way of Christian Bale in American Psycho. Unlike the latter film, which is based upon a book far more explicit than its cinematic counterpart, The Killer Inside Me is more interested in both completely and gratuitously visualizing Thompson's descriptions of the violence ("like pounding a pumpkin") and in maintaining that the audience dislike its protagonist.
About the former interest, I disagree with the need for faithful translation given that a reader with even the most vivid imagination isn't going to experience literary violence -- especially that which employs metaphor -- as directly and emotionally as he or she is going to experience the visually depicted sort -- especially that which employs such realistic make-up, heightened sound effects and close-up, concentrated camerawork.
However, regarding the issue of likability, that relentless violence is as good a way to ensure the audience immediately and eternally despises Lou as I've ever seen. At least, I hope that's the case, because after watching someone bash in the face of his trusting lover, no matter what his psychological background or how the film's consistent flashback revisitation of a still-beautiful and conscious Alba, rolling around in a bed with her ever-loving Lou, may remind us that it's just a story acted out by movie stars, I can't accept him as just another antihero or celebrated serial killer to be enjoyed like an Anton Chigurh or Patrick Bateman or Hannibal Lecter.
And to me, the violence is also good a way to recall the Production Code stipulations of classic Hollywood crime films in which the main character had to die in order to fit the rule that immorality didn't pay off. Not to spoil the film's ending, but I would be genuinely upset -- though not necessarily picket-sign, big-stink-during-the-Q&A-upset -- if Lou were allowed to walk off into the sunset. Not because of what he did but because of how what he did was allowed to get inside my brain.
Here's an ironic situation, though: there are those audience members who shield their eyes during the big beating scene for whom the images don't effectively alter their contextual perspective. Too daunted to look at the violence, they seem to be the most easily accepting of Lou, as played perfectly with the boyish charm and behind-the-eyes torment we've come to expect and praise with Affleck, as a sympathetic and appealing protagonist.
As for the rest of the stars, Hudson seems to give her best performance since her Oscar-nominated work in Almost Famous, if only because she's flown the rom-com coop and allowed herself to look relatively plain and act relatively pained. I found Alba too exotic-looking for her part. And too pretty and posh-looking, too, especially given Hudson's de-glamorization. The male support, including Ned Beatty as the town bigwig, Simon Baker as the suspicious district attorney and Elias Koteas as a local union leader, is mostly fine and serviceable. Bill Pullman, however, in a late and brief appearance as a boisterous attorney, steals the show for a somewhat out-of-nowhere bit.
Overall, ultimately and outside the certain disturbingly interruptive moments, I found The Killer Inside Me a bit too silly for its own good. Though never wild enough at heart to be in David Lynch territory it never seems committed enough to merely play the story straight (first Lynch movie reference intended, second purely coincidental), even if he does mean for the brightness of the cinematography to correspond to Thompson's forthright prose. Perhaps this is unavoidable from Winterbottom, who typically deals from the sidelines of both fiction and reality in his undefinable career through docudrama, reflexive comedy and prior shocking, walk-out-inspiring experiments in explicitness.
Yet even if this is my least favorite (least enjoyed?) Winterbottom since 9 Songs, I'd be lying if I said I don't appreciate the effort. In this way, the claims from Sundance that it's the year's Antichrist mean more to me than simply a shared cringe level -- though Von Trier is by a long shot the more interesting director on many terms, and Wintertbottom is showing that he's less eminent in the arena of ballsy filmmakers if he's taking admitted inspiration from Irreversible director Gaspar Noe.
Some will find The Killer Inside Me powerful, others will say it's irresponsible. I'll choose to not watch it again for the same reasons I never wanted to re-watch Extremities after the first time I saw it as a child (it may have been my introduction to the concept of violence toward women), but I look forward to the continued discussion the film provokes, whether personally, publicly, critically, academically or otherwise. I'm not certain it's necessarily an important film, but it could very well be a significant one in the long run.