Wednesday, 2 June 2010

It's Always Lightest Just Before the Dark: Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me

"How dare you?" shouted the woman at Sundance to a doubtless characteristically bemused Michael Winterbottom, thus setting the pattern for a string of festival screenings marked by boos, jeers, and walk outs. Now, it's coming out in the UK and the critics are lining up to accuse it - not of being too violent, of course not, that might suggest a certain weak-heartedness on the part of the critic. I'm no lily livered white bread Disney fan, they seem to be saying, but this film is Misogynist! There they said it. As Nina Power pointed out in her book One Dimensional Woman, the language of feminism is called forth to some peculiar causes these days - from the selling of shoes and chocolate to the hounding of Muslims. Since at least last year's Antichrist, 'feminists' are being rallied to a new cause - to express outrage at any film which deals with violence against women. Curious that a movement, part of whose historical mission has been to highlight and bring to attention the violence perpetrated by men towards women, the symbolic and the very real violence perpetrated by history, by society, by the law, by capitalism, against women, should now be called upon to sweep under the carpet any motion picture which deals with precisely this subject. No, we don't express our horror at cinematic violence anymore, we're not The Daily Mail screaming about video nasties corrupting our children, we're not Mary Whitehouse. The problem is that this violence is directed against women - and you just shouldn't hit girls, because girls are fair and weak and made of fairy dust.

Of course, the real problem with The Killer Inside Me, really so close to being a great film, is that it is simply not brutal enough. One way or another Jim Thompson's ferocious prose has been neutered time and again by the film industry. Kubrick gave writing credits to himself and his pals for scripts Thompson wrote alone; Peckinpah gave The Getaway a happy ending and changed its protagonist, Doc (played by Steve McQueen), from a vicious killer to a pensive pacifist who only kills once and in self-defence; Frears neutered The Grifters with a layer of ironic reflexivity that stops you getting suckered by its seductive con games.

The Killer Inside Me is an enormously strange book - a first person crime story narrated by a man who is clearly completely insane - but what is perhaps most disturbing about the book is just how nice, how charming this man, Lou Ford, is. Always ready with a quick line and an easy cliche, he's the nicest guy in town and everybody likes him. He's the good cop - the only one in the precinct who doesn't use violence to beat a confession out of his suspects. So when the bodies start piling up, no matter how much evidence there may be against him, no matter how implausible his story is, no-one would believe that Lou would do such a thing. Not good old Lou Ford. Everybody loves Lou - and so do you, the reader. And so you become complicit in his horrific acts of violence. You're right there with him, and pretty soon you're starting to feel pretty sick with yourself.

It's clear from interviews and press sheets that Michael Winterbottom regards Thompon as an essentially apolitical writer, a sort of tough guy nihilist like Dashiell Hammett. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In a way, Thompson was a kind of anti-Hammett, a member of the American Communist Party (the only political party at that time to support and fight for the rights of women and black people) who launched a tirade of abuse against the union-busting activities of Hammett's former employers, the Pinkerton Detective Agency (under the not so subtle codename of the Talkington Agency), in Pop. 1280. Likewise, The Killer Inside Me is not your standard psycho-on-the-loose story. Lou Ford is a high-ranking police detective, a pillar of the community - he practically is the community, a community that greets violence towards women and ethnic minorities with a broad smile. The cruelties and the contradictions of this small town - one much like the town Thompson himself grew up in - are writ large on every page.

So, the real problem with Winterbottom's film is precisely the one thing that all the haters have singled out for praise: Casey Affleck. From the very beginning of the movie, Affleck's Ford is clearly a nutcase with the cold dead eyes of a killer, merrily living up to every cinematic psycho cliche - he even listens to opera (Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, no less). As a result, the various twists and turn of the plot cannot help but seem wildly implausible. We are never seduced by Ford, we never catch a glimpse of how seductive he is, and so cannot fathom how anyone else would be. Likewise the violence remains just standard movie violence because it's what we expect of him from the very start. So it never feels like having your own face pummeled into hamburger meat by your best friend, it never feels like an anarchic scream against everything that is supposedly moral and upstanding in society, it just feels like another nasty movie in which boys get pleasure from watching girls get beaten up.

Cinematic violence can - and indeed must - be political and understood politically, not just as a thrill ride. For the Right this has always been understood, and the banning of violent films has always been used as a political weapon of normalisation and the protection of conservative values (the first film banned by the BBFC was of a boxing match - banned because it showed a black boxer triumphing over a white boxer). Now, increasingly, voices on the Left are stealing their thunder, trying to out-conservative the conservatives and neuter themselves in advance. In France, the last decade or so has seen the emergance of a hitherto unseen wave of bloody violence on cinema screens - but this wave has been accompanised by the emergence of a new filmic subject, the banlieues and their disenfranchised immigrant populations. In many recent French films, such as A L'Interieur, Trouble Every Day, or Frontier(s), the swathes of fake blood on screen are explcitly related to the upsurge in political violence from the banlieues over the same period. If we are to have a problem with Winterbottom's violence it should be precisely with its coyness, its insufficiency. Anything else is to hold your hands over your eyes in disavowal not just in the darkened cinema, but in our increasingly darkened world.