Book vs. Film: 'The Killer Inside Me'
WARNING: Spoilers discussed freely.
As soon as The Killer Inside Me, a film adaptation of Jim Thompson's seminal 1952 crime novel co-written (with John Curran) and directed by Michael Winterbottom, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival some four years ago, critics and moviegoers began simultaneously voicing their praise and disgust. Praise, because Winterbottom and company created a compelling and photographically gorgeous period noir that did justice to Thompson's work, beating out the previous 1975 adaptation—a campy, almost-parody of psycho-killer movies that Thompson biographer Robert Polito calls a "car wreck of a film"—by leaps and bounds; disgust, because the updated adaptation displays such scenes of brutal violence, many audience members walked out of the screening.
Rachel Cooke, writing for The Guardian, details much of the outcry toward the violence in the film, noting that the two scenes of Lou battering the women who love him are needlessly prolonged and far more gratuitous than the two male murders Lou commits (one of which happens off camera). Cooke does not suggest Winterbottom is a misogynist, though she mentions that other critics have said as much, and does align herself more with the latter camp than with Winterbottom. "I was so queasy," she writes about her experience watching the film, "I had to go and stand outside. I thought I might actually faint." Cooke adds, "The violence is a bloody blot on an otherwise beautiful canvas."
I don't believe Winterbottom himself is a misogynist (though the narrative's protagonist, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, certainly displays misogynistic behavior), and if Cooke believes as much, she doesn't let on. Yet I understand how she could think that, and how other critics came to the same conclusion, given the film Winterbottom ultimately made. I do think Cooke is spot on with her assessment that the violence mars an otherwise excellent film, but the flaws of Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me run deeper than mere graphic violence: it's that we don't have a clear sense as to why the violence is "necessary." In other words, we don't understand, from a narrative/psychological standpoint, why these brutal scenes are present, which implies their only function is to shock and upset. As we've seen in the past, shock value alone doesn't hold water. Consider the difference between films like Hostel, Last House on the Left (original or remake, take your pick), and any other entry into the "torture-porn" sub-genre of horror—all of which are nothing more than parades of nastiness for the sake of being nasty—to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which uses violence as a metaphor for consumerist America literally consuming itself into extinction. The latter has thematic heft, while the former doesn't.
Similarly, Thompson employs scenes of violence against women (and to a lesser degree, men) specifically to throw Lou Ford's nicey-nice West Texas patriarchal society under the bus. The original author's goals are expressly rooted in social criticism and psychological exploration, while I think Winterbottom was mostly interested in telling a story. By largely ignoring these deeper narrative elements and by amping up the violence, the director gives us something that is true to Thompson on a surface level only.
Let's take a closer look at the whys and hows of this divide between book and film, starting with the most basic element: the violence itself.
The First Murder, According to Thompson
I'm going to focus here on the first of the two aforementioned scenes of violence against women for two reasons: one, the first is arguably the most viscerally brutal of the pair; and two, the second scene, as filmed, is pretty faithful to the source material, and thus on its own doesn't subvert Thompson's novel.
But first, a little backstory: The Killer Inside Me is told through first-person narration by Lou Ford, the son of a celebrated physician and, in his own right, a respected lawman in Central City, TX. Ford describes his hometown as a place devoted to manners, propriety, and the status quo:
...maybe we're kind of old-fashioned, but our standards of conduct aren't the same, say, as they are in the east or middle-west. Out here you say yes ma'am and no ma'am to anything with skirts on; anything white, that is. Out here, if you catch a man with his pants down, you apologize...even if you have to arrest him afterwards. Out here you're a man, a man and a gentleman, or you aren't anything. And God help you if you aren't.
This passage appears very early in the novel, and works to establish Central City as a place where fitting in is mandatory. Winterbottom's film, via voice over, uses this passage verbatim, so from the onset we see an alignment between page and screen, a deliberate painting of the stifling politics anyone familiar with small towns will instantly recognize.
Understanding the "price of admission," Lou plays the part of a mild-mannered good-old-boy, though of course, as the title indicates, he is anything but. On the surface, Ford speaks in corny aphorisms that convince the other citizens of this town he is a fool, a dumb, harmless hick. However, Ford is fully aware that his clichés are insufferable and boring, and he uses them to pointedly "needle" people as an outlet for his aggressive tendencies—or, "the sickness," as he terms it.
We see Lou's inherent meanness begin to manifest more completely when he enters into a sexual-sadomasochistic love affair with Joyce Lakeland, a prostitute living on the outskirts of town. Their relationship is brutal, but consensual, and for a time, Lou is happy. But the loosening of his sexual inhibitions causes Lou to needle people in more direct ways; for instance, he crushes a burning cigar into a beggar's palm just for a laugh. Moreover, repressed memories begin to dislodge from Lou's subconscious, namely his molestation of a three year-old girl at the age of fifteen, a crime for which his adopted brother Mike took the blame. Mike is later murdered, a crime orchestrated by local oil magnate Chester Conway, a man made untouchable by law due to his money and influence.
On top of this, Joyce begins pressing Lou to run away from Central City and settle down with her, a notion Lou finds laughable since, from a societal standpoint, a "respectable' man of the law cannot marry a "whore" (he is also engaged to Amy Stanton, a "nice" girl from a good family). These sentiments anger Joyce, and she threatens to tell the entire town of their affair.
Lou, of course, doesn't like being threatened, and decides to do something about it. Knowing that one of Joyce's frequent customers is Conway's son Elmer, who is in love with the prostitute, Lou hatches a plan that, he hopes, will solve all his problems: it will get Joyce out of the picture, it will avenge Mike's death, and it will literally suppress his "sickness," which he blames Joyce for unlocking. The con is a bit complex, so I won't go into the details here, but in a nutshell, Lou decides to murder Joyce and Elmer, and make the crime scene look like a lover's quarrel gone awry.
Here we have the film's first major departure from its source material. Overall, Thompson exerts more nuance in his depiction of Joyce's death-by-battery at the hands of Lou, but the violence is nonetheless quite stark. He doesn't dance around the topic, using blunt language to describe this sadistic beating:
I whirled her around and gave her a quick one-two, and she shot backwards across the room and bounced and slumped against the wall. She staggered to her feet, weaving, mumbling, and half fell toward me. I let her have it again.
I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once. She slumped down, her knees bent under her, her head hanging limp; and then, slowly, and inch at a time, she pushed herself up again...
I brought an uppercut up from the floor. There was a sharp cr-aack! and her whole body shot upward, and came down in a heap. And that time it stayed down...
To say this scene is unsettling is, of course, and understatement, not only for its content, but because the act is so senseless. Lou chooses to kill Joyce this way—not gently, not quickly, but savagely and slowly. We already knew Lou was a cruel man with serious psychological issues, but this scene takes that knowledge to a place we weren't prepared to go.
The First Murder, According to Winterbottom
Now, one would think the text we've just read would be sufficient material for a disturbing scene in a movie, right?
Well, yes and no. Winterbottom includes all the above details, including Joyce (Jennifer Alba) flying through the air and smacking against the wall, and it's plenty unsettling. But then the director takes the scene even further, adding the specifics Thompson left out in the line, "it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once." We hear a sickening squishy/crunchy sound effect—a pumpkin filled with mayonnaise, perhaps?—as Lou (Casey Affleck) pummels Joyce's face. In her Guardian article, Rachel Cooke describes both the scene and the experience of watching it further:
Behind me, two middle-aged men...watched Lou rearrange Joyce's beautiful face and groaned in horror. "Oh, no," said one of them, as her right eye slowly moved a couple of inches south of her left. "Oh, God, no."
Alba's already full lips become engorged and monstrous, bits of her teeth begin to show through her tattered cheek, and overall her famous face becomes unrecognizable, a horrible Halloween mask.
If you've seen the film, you know this brief summation does not adequately encapsulate the scene's horrendous nature. It is just plain nasty and in no way gratifying or appealing, unless you're a sadist like Lou or a make-up artist who appreciates quality, realistic work.
A good question for Winterbottom and Thompson alike. Why include such graphic violence in a narrative? What's the point?
In the director's case, he gives Cooke a fairly decent answer. In addition to stating he wanted to be "faithful" to the book, Winterbottom explains:
The impact of the violence, it seemed to me, was about someone destroying anyone close to him...I wanted to show that if you choose to kill someone by punching them, it's a long, slow, difficult process. Also, I want you to have the space to think about what's going on. Why is he doing this when he loves her? It's the pointlessness of it. That's the key thing: how pointless it is.
Fair enough. I get what he's saying here, and to an extent I agree with it, for the shear fact that films and novels, while closely related, are still different animals with their own inherent languages. For the scene to have the same impact, it is necessary—in fact, unavoidable—to show a bit more than Thompson gives us. But to say the scene as Winterbottom filmed it is faithful to the book is false, for one, again, because it doesn't just show a bit more, it shows a whole lot more, and also because the scene as Thompson wrote it reads as a senseless act of brutality even without the details Winterbottom provided.
Moreover, as I previously mentioned, Winterbottom's violence is only the tip of the gratuitous iceberg. While the director added these minute but no-less important details to one pivotal scene, he also removed huge chunks of character development and backstory that give a psychological grounding to Lou's violent, misogynistic behavior—facets of his personality that do not, by any means, exonerate our protagonist, but at least work to balance out the graphic nature of his deeds and help us understand why he is the way he is.
In the novel, as Lou's "sickness" intensifies following Joyce's murder, he discovers a "cheeky" photo hidden inside one of his father's books, and recalls another dark secret from his childhood: a series of sexual-sadomasochistic encounters with Helene, a housekeeper employed by Lou's father. He remembers, too, his father berating Helene for her actions, and very soon after that, she disappeared from their lives. Lou burns the photograph, and with it his memory of the events.
Lou goes on killing, ostensibly to cover up his initial crime, but at the novel's climax, he realizes the truth of his murderous behavior, the real face of the killer inside him:
All kids pull some pretty sorry stunts, particularly if an older person edges 'em along, so it [his experiences with Helene] hadn't needed to mean a thing. But Dad had made it mean something. I'd been made to feel that I'd done something that couldn't ever be forgiven—that would always lie between him and me, the only kin I had. And there wasn't anything I could do or say that would change things. I had a burden of fear and shame put on me that I could never get shed of.
She was gone, and I couldn't strike back at her, yes, kill her, for what I'd been made to feel she'd done to me. But that was alright. She was the first woman I'd ever known; she was woman to me; and all womankind bore her face. So I could strike back at any of them, any female, the ones it would be safest to strike at, and it would be the same as striking at her.
Here we see Lou, at the end of his game, experiencing a moment of clarity and understanding. He's cooked up so many reasons as to why he must kill—to keep Joyce quiet and get her out of the picture, to keep certain people from discovering his crimes—but all these excuses are just that: excuses. He admits that he hates women, and he sees that this hatred extends from the false sense of shame that Lou has carried with him since childhood. Lou theorizes that had his father not taken such great pains to make him feel ashamed about the abuse, to make him feel as though what happened to him was ugly, disgusting and wholly perverse, he probably wouldn't feel this deep desire to destroy women. I'm in no way advocating child-adult relations—far, far from it—but I do think our society's twisted views of sexuality (which were worse in the 1950s, when depictions of any sex, even straight married sex, was taboo) more often do more harm than good. Helene's molestation of Lou is wrong, certainly, but at the same time, should his father have ingrained such moral disgust and shame into his son? Shouldn't he have steered clear from victim-blaming? Clearly, Thompson thinks so, and I agree.
The "Helene Incident" and Thompson's psychological explorations work to establish a core understanding of this character and his, for lack of a better term, split personality—the corny good ole boy and the killer within. This dichotomy serves as commentary on the split nature of all people, the exterior selves we present to society and the interior selves we have to keep hidden, or else suffer the consequences. Remember what Lou said of Central City (a microcosm for America): you act a certain way, and God help you if you don't. Thompson presents us a man who thinks and feels one way—he enjoys rough sex and doesn't care much about manners or propriety—but behaves in a fashion opposite how he feels. Lou sums up this impossible situation eloquently:
I guess I kind of got a foot on both fences...I planted 'em there early and now they've taken root, and I can't move either way and I can't jump. All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle. That's all I can do...
And yet, as important as all this is to the overall narrative, Winterbottom grazes over most of it. Helene makes only the briefest of appearances in the film, but Lou does not make any sort of realization about her or her relationship to his killer self. Most perplexingly, Helene is not the housekeeper, but rather Lou's biological mother, a fact revealed in a throwaway line in the last fifteen minutes of the movie, almost as though the point were inconsequential. This suggests to me that, rather than making a larger point about the repressive nature of society in relation to sexuality, Winterbottom wanted to give audiences one more twisted detail about Lou Ford—that he is, literally, one sick motherfucker. That's all fine and well, I suppose, but Thompson's approach is better.
So is there anything redeeming about Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me? Yes, a few things. The mise-en-scène—photography, settings, costumes, etc.—is absolutely stunning, as noted by Joe Nazare on his blog Macabre Republic:
The external world of mid-20th Century Texas is more fully realized [than Thompson's novel]—the cars, the clothes, the streets and homes. Also, the film's soundtrack makes pointed use of period music, such as Spade Cooley's hit song "Shame on You."
All actors involved give impressive performances, but none more so than Casey Affleck as Lou, who seems to be the only person who gets the emotional complexity of the character. In his book Savage Art, biographer Robert Polito writes that Thompson displays a "rock-ribbed sympathy for Ford," and so too does Affleck. One can see the turmoil, the slow loss of grip on reality and sanity, flickering behind his steely blue eyes, telegraphing tremendous amounts of pathos. His transition from cornball lawman to sadistic monster is simultaneously subtle and extreme, which results in truly unnerving moments. I have no doubt the film's subject matter and backlash prevented Affleck from winning an Oscar, because he rightly deserved one for his brilliant performance.
Despite all this, however, I see Winterbottom's effort as a failure. Not as big a failure as the 1975 version of The Killer Inside Me, in which serious moments are played for laughs and much scenery is chewed by the cast, but a failure nonetheless. I would argue Thompson's first-person narrative is just too heady to translate into film at all, but then I remember David Fincher's excellent adaptation of Fight Club, which utilizes voice over to bring Chuck Palahniuk's first-person narration to life, and I know it can be done.
And Fight Club brings me back around to my ultimate point: that nuanced, non-gratuitous screen violence can be achieved as well. Remember the vicious and senseless beating of Angel Face (Jared Leto) by Jack (Edward Norton)? Well, according to his DVD commentary, Fincher initially shot this scene more explicitly, lingering longer on Leto's intensifying disfigurement (sound familiar?). You can view this alternate scene in the bonus features, and it is quite unsettling; but ultimately, the scene as released is far more upsetting and effective, and Fincher acknowledges this. By pulling some of his punches, the director achieves greater results, and he admits his earlier, more visceral choices were wrong.
I think Michael Winterbottom could have taken a cue from Fincher here when tackling The Killer Inside Me and Thompson's violence. Or, if he's not a fan, from Alfred Hitchcock, who, through clever and suggestive editing, made audiences believe they were seeing a knife penetrate Janet Leigh's torso in Psycho, when in fact they were seeing anything but.
Fight Club and Psycho both depict violence in subtle, nuanced ways, and they're films I can watch over and over again. Conversely, I might view The Killer Inside Me a second time around, but I don't feel that compelled to do so; and even if I did, I'd probably just skip past Joyce's murder. And if I'm inclined to skip past a crucial moment in a film, can it really be said the film is well-made and "complete"? I think not. As Cullen Gallagher, writing for his blog Pulp Serenade, states:
None of the violence in Winterbottom’s film functions close to the way it did in Thompson’s book. Winterbottom gets the shock value, but without placing it in a moral (or amoral) dimension—and without the psychological connection to the characters—it comes off as vapid and uninteresting.
That about sums it up. Thanks, Cullen.
Anyone out there familiar with Thompson's novel and/or Winterbottom's adaptation? What's your take? Did the violence in the latter bother you, or not? Do you think Winterbottom did a good job adapting the book? Let us know in the comments section.
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