I say 'whip it!'--Jessica Alba in The Killer Inside Me
Bad to the bone
Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me (2010) is a mess. It largely misses the import of noir writer Jim Thompson's gleefully evil 1952 novel the same time it visualizes the book's most violent setpieces with unflinching courage. It's strong in many ways, yet seems completely clueless about the inimitable Thompson flavor--the sulfurous taint you taste with every helping of his bleakly funny fiction.
It's a perilous task, adapting Thompson; he seems so deceptively easy, so surprisingly difficult to bring to the big screen (Sam Fuller once said of Thompson's 1959 The Getaway that the book could serve as the movie's own shooting script--it's full of intricate plot, memorable dialogue, and little fat). But Burt Kennedy's 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me turned out to be a mostly toothless affair (despite featuring Stacy Keach as a massive Lou Ford), and Sam Peckinpah--"Bloody Sam" he's sometimes called, whose balletic slow-motion despair might have beautifully realized Thompson's terminal nihilism--ended his 1972 The Getaway at the point when it should have gotten really interesting. Critic and poet Geoffrey O'Brien called Thompson a "Dimestore Dostoevsky" and while Thompson's writing doesn't have the magnitude and complexity of Dostoevsky's moral vision, he does seem to share Dostoevsky's uncanny understanding of abnormal and criminal minds.
Stephen Frears did a good job adapting The Grifters (1990) from Thompson's 1963 novel--the whirling, fast-talking world of malignant gamblers, crooked businessmen, and money-grubbing con artists served as a seductive, glittering facade against which moved a figure of pure evil. Bernard Tavernier managed an even more difficult feat, transposing Thompson's 1964 work Pop. 1280 from a racist town in what is possibly Texas to the equally racist French West Africa (where the first slaves were shipped to the Americas) in Coup de Torchon (Blow to the head, 1981), and shooting what is said to be Thompson's darkest novel in the relentless African sunshine. Tavernier captures much of the dark humor, throwing in a few jokes of his own--the film's opening states that it was adapted from Pop. 1280; the end credits say it's from Pop. 1275, and it takes us a few moments to remember five whites died during the course of the picture.
The Killer Inside Me is not quite on the level of Pop. 1280, but builds up considerable irony on its own--the narrator Lou Ford, the town's deputy sheriff, presents himself as an affable bumpkin; the book's essential action strips away that facade to reveal an opportunistic schemer not above committing murder to exact revenge or protect himself, then peels away that layer to reveal a psychopath, pure and simple. Winterbottom sets himself a difficult task, attempting to replicate this action mostly without the use of Thompson's first-person voiceover; besides a few lines of narration taken from the book, Affleck's Ford keeps his thoughts to himself.
The task proves too difficult; without that constant voiceover we feel little empathy for the character, fail to follow close his descent down Thompson's noir hell. Possibly Robert Bresson, a master of the voiced narrative, could have done something about evoking the vast distance between what Ford says and what he does (or what he eventually says in an attempt to explain what he does)--Bresson's 1959 Pickpocket (basically Crime and Punishment set in the streets of Paris) could be seen as spiritually connected to Thompson's book, the eponymous criminal a distant cousin of Lou Ford. Winterbottom is no slouch at adaptation, but where I think he's brilliant at bringing a writer like Thomas Hardy to vivid cinematic life (as witness his 1996 and 2000 adaptations of Jude the Obscure" and The Mayor of Casterbridge), Thompson seems to keep a step or two ahead of him, playing existential games in a way Winterbottom can't quite understand, much less capture on film.
That said, the film isn't a total botch--in many cruder ways, it's a powerful experience. Casey Affleck's Lou Ford is a hoarse-voiced softshoe seducer whose tired-looking eyes bring to mind someone who just woke up and hasn't caught up with what's really going on--perfect guise for a killer. When he goes into action, the disconnect between his tired eyes and his efficient, economical moves helps evoke some of the disconnect Thompson was striving for in his novel.
Where I think Winterbottom really comes into his own is in the casting and directing of Jessica Alba as Joyce Lakeland: Thompson pictured a hardened pro, Winterbottom casts a waiflike angel with a stripper's bod (her sex scenes with Affleck have real sexual heat to them, and Affleck bends and clutches and mauls her body in ways that seem both playful and painful). Winterbottom exploits Alba's eagerness to please her director and win critical respect the way Lou exploits Joyce's eagerness to please him, and the parallels are doubly unsettling. When Lou pulls back and delivers a blow to Joyce's face, her response of hurt bewilderment is every bit as horrific as the beating that follows--it's like looking at a bright child prodigy, model student and teacher's pet who doesn't understand why she's being punished. She waits patiently, uselessly for an explanation that will never come.
Alba's Joyce helps put some kind of alternate complexion to Thompson's nihilism, bring it closer to what Dostoevsky had in mind. It wasn't just human depravity that was the Russian novelist's unique province; he insisted on writing about human grace and redemption, on the light as well as the shadow, arguing that in many ways one cannot exist without the other. Winterbottom seems to want to suggest that kind of dichotomy, risking huge plot imponderables along the way. A brave attempt--not quite successful, but worth seeing, even acknowledging as such.
First published in Businessworld, 10.07.10