Kate Hudson and Casey Affleck in 'The Killer Inside Me'
"How dare you?" That's what one appalled movie buff asked director Michael Winterbottom when 'The Killer Inside Me' premiered at Sundance in January. She wasn't alone; many critics have condemned the film, which is based on the celebrated Jim Thompson novel about a small-town sheriff's deputy who's also a cold-blooded serial killer.

At a time when mainstream action and horror movies routinely show plenty of gore, Winterbottom has seen his little art-house movie (which opens in limited release on June 18) become the year's most controversial film to date. It has only a couple of unflinchingly violent sequences, but in those scenes (spoiler alert), the targets of the violence are played by two of Hollywood's most in-demand young actresses, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba. Winterbottom's camera lingers on their suffering as protagonist Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) pummels the life out of them with his fists.
Kate Hudson and Casey Affleck in 'The Killer Inside Me'

"How dare you?" That's what one appalled movie buff asked director Michael Winterbottom when 'The Killer Inside Me' premiered at Sundance in January. She wasn't alone; many critics have condemned the film, which is based on the celebrated Jim Thompson novel about a small-town sheriff's deputy who's also a cold-blooded serial killer.

At a time when mainstream action and horror movies routinely show plenty of gore, Winterbottom has seen his little art-house movie (which opens in limited release on June 18) become the year's most controversial film to date. It has only a couple of unflinchingly violent sequences, but in those scenes (spoiler alert), the targets of the violence are played by two of Hollywood's most in-demand young actresses, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba. Winterbottom's camera lingers on their suffering as protagonist Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) pummels the life out of them with his fists.

"I was a little bit surprised," Winterbottom tells Moviefone, regarding the backlash against the film. The director of several politically aware films (including 'Welcome to Sarajevo,' 'In This World,' 'The Road to Guantanamo,' 'A Mighty Heart,' and 'The Shock Doctrine'), Winterbottom is suddenly finding himself branded a misogynist and a pandering exploitation filmmaker. His defenders, meantime, are saying that 'Killer's' violence, precisely because it's so hard to watch, in no way glamorizes or endorses real-life violence against women.

Either way, those two sequences in 'Killer' are making moviegoers uncomfortable in a way that films with many more violent and gruesome scenes do not. The movie forces the questions of what constitutes gratuitous violence in a film, how far is too far, and what it takes to shock contemporary moviegoers.

Breaking down the two sequences in question, Winterbottom tells Moviefone, "There are two scenes in the film that are violent in any shocking way. One of them, the killing of Amy [Hudson], is not really violent in a physical way, it's just emotionally unpleasant because what he's doing is a horrible thing to do. It's just the emotional violence of somebody killing somebody who loves him."

Jessica Alba in 'The Killer Inside Me'"The scene with Joyce [Alba] is more physically violent," Winterbottom says. (On a blow-for-blow basis, that's true. It only takes Lou a couple of sucker-punches to kill Amy, but he hits Joyce repeatedly in the face until her skull caves in.) The director adds, "But it seems people went from saying those scenes are violent and shocking, which they should be -- killing somebody who loves them, and who they loved to some extent, should be shocking and brutal and horrible. But some people seem to think the film is somehow suggesting that's a good thing. That's ludicrous. I don't see how you could watch this film and think anything other than the fact that what Lou does is horrible and nasty. It's not condoned by the film at all."

That the violence against these women is shown to be thoroughly horrible is cited as an asset by the film's defenders. The Los Angeles Times' Mark Olsen called the sequence of Lou's relentless assault on Joyce "essential to the film's storytelling" because "the duration of the scene is not to take pleasure in her pain, but rather to show the level of commitment, of sheer psychotic will, that it takes to beat a person to death." Since Lou's victims are the women he loves, critic Hadley Freeman, in the UK Guardian, found Winterbottom's film pro-feminist for showing how awful domestic violence is.

Winterbottom says, however, that he did not have any kind of social statement in mind, that he was merely trying to be faithful to Thompson's novel and its depiction of its protagonist's twisted psyche. "I actually think it's missing the point of the film to talk about the violence. There's only two violent scenes in the film. It's not a film that's full of violence. It's about Lou Ford, about his madness and sickness, his weakness, and his desire to destroy everything around him. To look at it through the prism of 'Oh, this is a story about domestic violence,' is perverse. It's a noir story, it's very fictional, it's very melodramatic. To me, it's clear that the violence is horrible and nasty, and the film is showing how destructive and pathetic that is. But I didn't intend to make a film about domestic violence. I wanted to make a film of 'The Killer Inside Me,' which I think is a great noir novel."

One reason for the outrage may be that, unlike the anonymous teenage victims in a standard horror movie, the victims here are two sexy, prominent actresses, both of them gossip-column fixtures, both of them big enough stars to have some clout, some say over what they'll subject themselves to onscreen. Writing in the UK Observer, critic Barbara Ellen said it's patronizing to Alba and Hudson as women that angry viewers aren't holding them just as responsible as Winterbottom for allowing themselves to be so brutally victimized in the movie.

Asked whether viewers might be more shocked because these characters are played by beautiful, powerful stars that moviegoers have come to care about, Winterbottom tells Moviefone, "That might be true. I was watching a trailer for a horror movie yesterday, and it looked absolutely grotesque and horrible, and maybe you're right. But it's quite a strange thing if that is true, that because Jessica and Kate are well-known that makes it more horrible, or the opposite, if someone is unknown, it's okay to be violent towards them. It may well be that you're right, but that's quite weird if it is true."

Trailer for 'The Killer Inside Me


Maybe not that weird. After all, we're used to seeing action movies where a Schwarzenegger- or Stallone-style hero mows down thousands of faceless bad guys, like so many video-game foes, without our having to feel a moment of revulsion or remorse. We're used to so-called "torture-porn" horror movies like the 'Saw' and 'Hostel' franchises, where the violence is gory and gruesome but more cathartic than scary. We're used to high-minded war docudramas, like Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' or 'The Pacific,' where the maimings and dismemberments are shown in the name of historical accuracy, but where the body counts are so high that it's nearly impossible to feel a pang over the loss of any one soldier. And we're used to the stylized, balletic violence of directors like Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino, where violence is simply part of the kinetic thrill, the headlong rush, of experiencing a movie.

Of course, you don't have to be an artist like Scorsese or Tarantino to stylize violence, since, really, all movie violence is stylized. Despite the common citations of sex and violence as twin scourges of film content, movie violence isn't really like movie sex because it's entirely fake. We're not seeing real body parts being destroyed or real blood spurting. We're just seeing the director's idea of what those things would look like if they really happened.

That we know it's fake makes movie violence ultimately safe. Watching it offers a disgust and a thrill that are cathartic because they are safely vicarious. Better to blow off steam by watching a violent movie than to express one's own violent impulses in real life.

But can every viewer respond to movie violence that way? The way both Winterbottom's supporters and detractors discuss the issue of whether or not the movie seems to endorse the violence it depicts seems to assume that there are viewers who will get the wrong idea. As Winterbottom has said, the notion that anyone would think the movie is pro-violence is absurd, but behind every censorious impulse lies the assumption that some viewers are too unsophisticated or unbalanced to be trusted to take the film the right way. These viewers are always someone else, not the censor or critic himself. (If there really were a direct link between repeated exposure to movie violence and a propensity for real-life violence, the most violent people in the world would be movie critics and the members of the MPAA ratings board.)

That may be why we've come up with the concept of "gratuitous violence." Maybe a little violence on film isn't harmful, or is even essential to storytelling, but beyond that line, the amount of violence is gratuitous, excessive, unnecessary. Of course, no one can say where that line is.

Discussing 'Killer,' Financial Times columnist Nigel Andrews argues there's no such thing as gratuitous violence, especially in a movie (like 'Killer') in which violence is a primary topic of the film. It's pointless to argue for a cinema that's so safe that it won't provide any already disturbed viewers an excuse to commit real-life violence, since such people can be set off by even the most innocuous triggers. Might as well just let filmmakers (both horror hacks and art-house artistes) make the movies they want to make. If grown-ups and mature teens want to see them fine, if not, also fine. (The movie's called 'The Killer Inside Me.' You can't say you weren't warned.)

It's a nice coincidence that 'Killer' comes out during the week that marks the 50th anniversary of 'Psycho.' Although 'Killer' is faithful to Thompson's 1952 novel, the way Winterbottom presents violent shocks onscreen, and the way he shifts audience identification between the killer and his victims, owes a debt to Alfred Hitchcock's landmark 1960 film, as do most modern movies about serial killers. Like 'Psycho,' 'Killer' introduces well-known actresses as its heroines, only to knock them off early in the film. Like Norman Bates, Lou Ford is a small-town loner who's outwardly courteous and likable, even attractive. As with Norman, there's a hint of Freudian trauma in Lou's past to help explain (but not excuse) how he came to be a twisted murderer. And like Anthony Perkins, Affleck effectively makes viewers empathize with the anguish he feels over the split between his good side and his psychopathically violent side.

And, like 'Killer,' 'Psycho' was considered the most shocking movie of its day, even though it had only two (admittedly horrifying) onscreen murders (and some offscreen horrors as well). As 'Psycho' proved, it takes only a couple of particularly brutal killings to shock audiences, even though (or maybe, especially because) viewers are so used to seeing violence without consequences. Fifty years later, maybe we should be relieved that we still have that capacity to be shocked and appalled.