Beaten to a pulp

It’s still near impossible to capture Jim Thompson’s Godlessness on film

Jul 7, 2010 at 12:00 am

"I backed her up against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once."
—Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me

In bringing Jim Thompson's 1952 nihilistic noir to the screen, genre-hopping director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart) spares the audience nothing, not even the abstraction of words, when it comes to violence. As brutal and disturbing as the novel's above quote is, the film's naturalistic approach to the murder leaves the viewer profoundly shaken. Unlike the smirking brutality of Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth and their imitators, it's delivered without a hint of irony or glee. When Lou Ford (played by Casey Affleck) beats in Jessica Alba's way-too pretty face, Winterbottom forces us to witness every moment of its horrible ugliness. He is, indeed, honoring Thompson's pitch-black amorality, while arguing against the idea that movie violence can exist in a just-for-fun moral vacuum. And though I admire the filmmaker's unwillingness to compromise the primal impact of the author's prose, the scene simply doesn't work. At least, not within the context of what Winterbottom seems to be doing with The Killer Inside Me.

Though literature has a long history of presenting unreliable narrators, the examples in cinema are relatively sparse. One of the more brilliant conceits in Thompson's first-person narrative is that Lou thinks he's far smarter and craftier than he actually is. And for a good chunk of the novel we're duped into believing that we're following the exploits of a homicidal mastermind. Winterbottom, however, is unable to maintain that illusion. His approach is just too literal, detached and aloof to convince us that Lou is anything other than a disturbed sociopath. The scene with Alba is so committed to its blunt realism that it is at odds with Lou's internal monologue. After all, it's hard to buy into a sociopath's unreliable narration if we're seeing things as they really occur. It's an approach that kills any chance for tension, surprise or momentum. Instead, Killer Inside Me is a fitfully impressive slog toward its inevitably apocalyptic conclusion.

With Affleck's psychopathic deputy sheriff providing play-by-play commentary, we watch as Lou descends deeper and deeper into madness after he brutally murders his prostitute girlfriend (Alba) and her suitor (Jay R. Ferguson) in order to get revenge on the local developer (Ned Beatty) he believes killed his brother. But in order to cover up his crime, Lou weaves together a complicated web of lies that too easily unravels. So he's forced to kill again. And again. Something he clearly enjoys more than he should.

Lou presents himself as an aphorism-spouting Boy Scout to his colleagues and neighbors, while monologuing about how confident and cunning he is. Before long, however, we're questioning whether our antihero knows himself nearly as well as he should. One stupid mistake begets another, and pretty soon he's scrambling to cover up his mushrooming missteps. And yet he remains impassive and unfazed, convinced of his duplicitous superiority. 

As a character portrait, Killer had the opportunity to be truly innovative, laying bare how completely a character can delude himself. But to do that, Winterbottom needed to either pull us completely into Lou's perspective (before pulling the rug out from under us) or viciously juxtapose his delusions with reality. The film almost achieves the latter but never lets us get close enough to Lou to make clear the dissonance. Instead of a fevered, claustrophobic and reckless build toward a suspenseful finale, the film is as poker-faced as Lou. Visually, Winterbottom keeps things flat, bright and Texas-sunny, as if the truth could never hope to hide. But emotionally the movie is cold and methodical, never letting the tension mount. It's a serious misstep that robs the movie of any resonance.

Affleck, with his boyish looks and scratchy whine, is magnetic to watch but too deadpan to connect with. There are highly effective moments where he reveals flashes of Lou's underlying sadism, but Winterbotttom's determination to show us how things are rather than how Lou imagines them to be undermines any chance for psychological insight. A few half-hearted flashbacks suggest the origins of his pathologies, but even those may just be clever illustrations of Lou's own rationalizations (an idea worthy of more exploration). In one scene, Winterbottom reveals that Lou's S&M porn stash is mixed in with a book by Sigmund Freud, suggesting that sometimes there are no convenient explanations for why some people are as screwed-up as they are. It's a rare and clever inside joke slipped inside this serious-minded but atonal film. But without any thematic power or psychological subtext, it comes off as just another slavish literary pose. 

Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].