Sundance 2010: In defense of 'The Killer Inside Me'
The first weekend of the Sundance Film Festival is a live-or-die, high-stakes game for many of the movies that premiere there looking for a distribution deal or simple promotional hype, but there is undoubtedly something askew about the reactions some films get during those first few days. The pressure on filmmakers, audiences, buyers and journalists alike tend to push reactions to extreme ends of the spectrum, as the desire to be dazzled makes everything play at a higher pitch. Maybe it's the elevation?
The positive buzz Thursday to Sunday on films like "Catfish" and "Winter's Bone" was overwhelming, tempered by backlash cries of "overrated" on Monday and Tuesday. One film certainly damaged by its weekend reception was the new film by Michael Winterbottom, "The Killer Inside Me," an adaptation of the novel by the influential pulp writer Jim Thompson. When the film premiered on Sunday at the Eccles theater, the biggest and most high-profile venue at the festival, it was received harshly, reportedly inspiring numerous walk-outs due to its graphic depictions of violence against women. During a post-show Q&A one woman asked "How dare you?" of Winterbottom and even the festival itself for showing it.
The first wave of reviews and reactions seemed somehow tinged with the aftertaste of that evening, running mixed-to-negative. On Thursday morning the film was shown as a last-minute press and industry screening at the smaller Holiday Village theater to a half-full room of folks who were sticking it out to the end of the festival. Among the crowd were numerous critics and distribution representatives, and the film seemed to play much better to that room. It is one of the great mysteries of Sundance, what the differences of a few days and a different venue can make.
"The Killer Inside Me" is, to these eyes, without question one of the most electrifying films at the festival. One should perhaps know first-off that it is a movie called "The Killer Inside Me" based on a novel called "The Killer Inside Me" -- from the get-go it should be apparent this is not going to be nice stuff. And the film's violence is not so much graphic or prolonged as it is effectively staged, so that every blow matters and is felt. Thompson's novel is a first-person narration of a serial killer in a remote Texas town who also happens to be a sheriff's deputy. Stanley Kubrick, who collaborated with Thompson on the films "the Killing" and "Paths Of Glory," referred to "The Killer Inside Me" as "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered."
Winterbottom's adaptation, from a screenplay by John Curran, finds a way to take the book's interior monologue and externalize it, using only spare bits of voice-over to put the viewer right inside the mind of Lou Ford, the friendly neighborhood psychopath. Much of what makes the film so effective is the lead performance by Casey Affleck. In his first major performance since the 2007 double-shot of "Gone Baby Gone" and his Oscar-nominated turn in "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford," Affleck showcases his uncanny ability to project a person holding two thoughts in his head at once, as he often gives away nothing in his face to convey the firestorm obviously raging in his soul. As he did in "Jesse James," where he also played a man named Ford, there is a queasiness behind every smile and a disconcerting aggression to his politely placid demeanor. In the closest his character in "Killer" ever comes to a confession, he explains himself to a victim moments before another kill as he says he will keep "feet on both sides of the fence...until I split right down the middle."
The scene that has stirred the most controversy is one in which Affleck's character brutally beats a prostitute played by Jessica Alba. Early in the film there is a scene between the two of them in which he seems to be using his sheriff's authority to threaten to run her out of town. He then roughly tosses her onto a bed and begins to spank her bare bottom, as her face at first shows anguish and then pleasure. In the film's slightly a-chronological sequencing this is not their first meeting, though it is the first shown on-screen, and so the scene shows the dynamic of their relationship -- a wary two-way manipulation -- while also purposefully throwing the viewer off-balance as to just what is happening when. The scene establishes that there may be something approaching genuine affection between Affleck and Alba, while also placing it in an uncertain light.
So when Affleck beats Alba to a bloody pulp a few scenes later it is off-putting and confusing, but purposefully so. As Affleck casually puts on a pair of gloves as they are talking and then begins to playfully slap her face, Alba's character doesn't quite grasp that he has turned on her. Then as he starts to punch her in the face at full force, often while tenderly saying "I love you," he seems to relentlessly just pummel on. 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. The scene is essential to the film's storytelling, in that it creates the ultimate break between Affleck's character and the viewer. Just as his continued killings are done to cover up one crime after the next, after the scene of Alba's beating there is no going back.
Controversy, whether directly courted or not, is as much a regular part of the festival scene as dysfunctional family comedies and coming of age stories. "The Killer Inside Me" is in moments devastatingly brutal, but it is also thoughtful, stylish, at times dryly funny, disconcertingly sexy and provides a modulated, slowly enveloping take on constructing an interior psychology on film. Like the period rockabilly and Western swing music that punctuates the movie -- songs of romance and desperation, dance tunes about death -- "The Killer Inside Me" straddles the fence between darkness and light, sex and violence, love and hate, capturing the inferno burning inside the mind of one man.
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Casey Affleck in "The Killer Inside Me." Credit: the Sundance FIlm Festival.