There is a famous Hollywood story about the making of The Big Sleep in 1945. Supposedly, at one point during the filming director Howard Hawks and his writers became so confused about the plot – a quagmire of sex, jealousy, double-crosses and murder – that they couldn’t figure out who killed the chauffeur character, a key death that drives the plot. As the story goes, they decided to settle things with a telegram to the author Raymond Chandler, whose novel they were adapting. Chandler thought it over and sent back the response, “Damned if I know.”
The joke being, obviously, that the important thing isn’t why the chauffeur died but the clockwork plot that his death helps to set in motion, giving Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and a cast of assorted molls and toughs an excuse to crack wise, quip cynical, and talk tough. Audiences and critics didn’t mind the dangling end, Bogey and Bacall quipped their way into film history, and the chauffeur’s unsolved death remains one of the great maguffins of noir cinema.
Whether true or legend, that story illustrates something essential about the noir genre. In the same way that we can enjoy a nice juicy hamburger while finding the slaughterhouse repulsive, we crave the narrative propulsion and juicy thrills that sex and murder lend our noir films without actually wanting to be confronted with the realities of those things. Better that they happen off-screen, in the margins of the story, ideally before the film even begins, so that when our hero stumbles upon the crime scene in that dingy hideout or seedy love nest we can see the aftermath without actually having to dirty ourselves with the messy details. Forget about the chauffeur. Get to the quipping.
Or at least, this seemed to be the reaction of many critics and audiences to Michael Winterbottom’s divisive and misunderstood neo-noir The Killer Inside Me, which premiered in 2010 and recently came out on DVD. If any film in 2010 sparked visceral, polarizing audience reactions, it was this one. An adaptation of Jim Thompson’s notorious 1952 novel, it drew hostility even at its premiere Sundance screening, where one audience member reportedly booed and catcalled Winterbottom with cries of “How dare you!”
The film stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in a sleepy West Texas town sometime in the 1950s. A well-loved fixture among the townsfolk, what no one knows is that beneath his benign exterior he is a sociopathic sadist with a penchant for violent sex and random acts of cruelty. When he begins a sadomasochistic relationship with a local prostitute named Joyce (played by Jessica Alba), at first it seems like a relatively healthy outlet for his darker impulses. But soon, what he refers to as “the sickness” quickly gets out of his control and it becomes increasingly impossible to hide his double life and keep his unspeakable urges in check. When Ford begins what he thinks will be a relatively simple blackmail scheme, it quickly becomes a blood-soaked nightmare as the deceptions that make Ford’s life possible begin to gradually unravel. Every new alibi seems to require another murder, and soon the sinister side which he has suppressed for so many years begins to consume him and his loved ones.
At first glance, the diminutive Affleck would seem like a poor fit for a character like this, but seeing him inhabit the role onscreen, it becomes a natural fit. Winterbottom’s direction and Affleck’s performance turn a possible negative into a positive by playing up his soft features, girlish voice, and innocent demeanor. The ease with which he exudes this kind of mannered mid-century Southern charm makes it all the more shocking when his nihilistic depravity bubbles up to the surface. It’s an inspired casting (miles away from Stacy Keach’s macho performance in the limp mid-70s version of the same story), and Affleck turns in another great performance in a series of of magnificent, career-defining performances starting with 2007’s The Assassination of Jess James by the Coward Robert Ford. Along with Alba and Kate Hudson, who plays Ford’s unsuspecting fiancé, Affleck is surrounded by a crack team of character actors that includes Ned Beatty, Tom Bower, Elias Koteas, and Bill Pullman, all of whom lend just the right amount of drawl and sleaze to the pulpy material without ever going over the top.
What sparked the incendiary controversy and debate that engulfed this film during its brief run wasn’t the capable ensemble cast, but two scenes of graphic violence against women, particularly a prolonged scene early in the film in which Ford methodically beats Joyce to death (this is not much of a spoiler, I promise). Generous screen time and some excruciatingly unflinching close-ups of Alba’s face are given during the scene, as we watch her slowly turn from something beautiful into a sickening, nearly-unrecognizable mess. In featuring this brutal violence so prominently in what would otherwise be a fairly standard genre film, many critics accused Winterbottom of going too far. Some accused him of crossing a line in the service of voyeurism or cheap thrills, and others accused him of misogyny for showing such brutality.
Typical of the film’s detractors was Observer critic Rachel Cooke, who skewered the film and Winterbottom’s motives by leveling the familiar complaint that the film’s violence was guilty of “drawing the audience’s attention away both from its exquisite noir mood, and from Affleck’s mesmerizing performance,” and calling it “a bloody blot on an otherwise beautiful canvas.”
This, I think, gets at the heart of the misperceptions surrounding this film. Like Cooke, many critics and audiences resented the “distraction” of the violence in The Killer Inside Me, preferring instead for Winterbottom to gloss over the gruesome realities of his characters’ actions in order to spend more time luxuriating in the “exquisite noir mood” of the setting and genre. These critics have no apparent problem if that kind of violence props up the film’s “beautiful canvas”, but consider it beyond the pale if that violence is dwelled on or treated too realistically.
What these critics seemed to miss was the obvious fact that shocking them out of that comfort zone was precisely Winterbottom’s intent. As Casey Affleck put it in his defense of the film, “irresponsible is when you have a movie where 300 people get killed by robots, and none of it matters, none of it registers. In this movie, we wanted the violence to seem real, and the victims of violence to seem real.” One could make a convincing argument that a truly misogynist filmmaker would fade to black after Ford lands the first blow, or even before that, skipping over all of that inconvenient brutality lest it get in the way of the atmosphere, a crass game of misdirection that Winterbottom was unwilling to play.
Of course, the violence in The Killer Inside Me is about more than simple moralizing, though. By rudely kicking us out of our comfortable genre conventions, Winterbottom is trying to tell us that his film is only a noir on its surface. At heart it’s a character study, a glimpse inside the mind of a tragically-flawed man as the untenable duality of his life finally begins to crumble. (Stanley Kubrick, who worked with Jim Thompson on The Killing, once famously called Thompson’s novel “the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered”).
Lou Ford is not tragic because he is insane, but because he is acutely aware of his own insanity and its consequences. He finds himself possessed of Ahab’s “wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself.” Even as he craves the release and relief of unleashing his dark impulses, he is sickened at their horrifying consequences and his inability to control himself. That much is clear from the fact that even as he coldly murders Joyce, possibly the only woman who truly loves him, he whispers heartfelt apologies to her: “I’m sorry,” he coos. “It’s almost over…I love you.” It’s an incredibly disturbing bit of cognitive dissonance.
He is a man out of time and place, with no healthy societal outlet for the feelings which he is forced to keep bottled up. By giving us an uncomfortably graphic front row seat to what happens when his hidden side erupts (as well as ensuring that none of it is “exciting” or stylized in any way) Winterbottom takes advantage of our status as passive observers and sets the scene up as a grisly metaphor for Ford’s madness: like Ford, we as the audience are horrified at what is happening but still powerless to stop it. In this way we get a true window into Ford’s madness and the torture that these contradictory personalities have made of his life (not to mention the lives that he so casually snuffs out).
Sadly, the result was a film that was misunderstood by many critics who were unable or unwilling to get past the dismissive finger-pointing of their initial reactions and ask themselves the difficult questions the film poses. Ironically, what its creators thought was a sober, mature treatment of violence ended up being marginalized by a sensationalistic and immature press. For example, when Jessica Alba had to leave one screening early, rumors began flying around in print and on the web that she had “stormed out” in disgust at her character’s treatment. Of course, she denied this and articulately defended the film and Winderbottom’s choices, but few reported it. (It goes without saying that, presumably having had to sit through hours of makeup and prep for the scene in question, the idea that she would later be shocked by its content is laughable). Hopefully, now that much of the controversy has died down, the DVD release of this film will give it the chance it needs to find a more thoughtful, understanding audience who will recognize it as one of the more intelligent commentaries on the noir genre in recent years by a brave and original director.