23 June, 2010

Review: The Killer Inside Me: Under Your Skin

It's only fitting that a film adaptation of Jim Thompson's pulpy noir The Killer Inside Me has stirred up an entirely lurid debate about film violence. Yes, there are two very grim scenes of violence. Yes, they happen to be violence against women. Yes, these women are shown enjoying mildly masochistic rough sex at other points in the film. But, the alleged motives for the violence do not arise from the sex, but from the sociopathic manipulations of the main character. The violence itself is not sexualized. Whilst it may not seem to be the most mitigating way of defending the treatment of these scenes in the film, there is probably less than four minutes of actual onscreen violence, when it is shown, it is short and shocking, not dwelled on, it is handled tastefully, but not in a glamorous, artful way (I know, you heard sadomasochist and your mind went all Helmut Newton). And really about 95% of the film is non-violent, mundane, action and talking, mostly legal, it would probably be Pleasantville, if it weren't for the murders, beatings and spankings with sex.

Oh by the way folks, the title is "The Killer Inside Me", not "The Fluffy Bunny Brigade Brainwash Children To Kill and Desensitize Your Grandma to Violence". Just so we're on the same page here.

The good news is that this is a good film, and it very quickly draws you in and makes you forget the tinnitus like media whinging and hand wringing. Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, a Deputy Sheriff in a town in West Texas. Ostensibly he develops a plan to avenge the murder of his foster brother and doesn't let anyone stand in his way, or even vaguely near his way. Affleck plays with a cool intensity, while showing the character's frightening moral detachment, he doesn't just wheel on the cliché detached psychopath. Whatever his murky motives are, he seems driven by them.

While most of the film and occasional voice over narration are very much from Lou's point of view, Michael Winterbottom's direction keeps us at a distance. We don't identify with, or even root for Affleck in his crimes. There are quite a few things we aren't shown, enough to question the reliability of the narrator. We are kept intrigued to see how it will go, what might he do next to avoid justice. While it is briefly harrowing during the attacks, tension is sustained not by the constant threat of more of the same, but by the dramatic tightrope walk through the twisted maze of Lou's plan.

The violent acts he commits are not done with relish, and are hard to watch. I was glad that I found the violence repugnant. I'll say it -- I enjoyed the fact that I found it horrible. Not in a sadomasochistic, hit me again please way, but in a thank god I'm not so inured to violence that I can't be sickened by it way. I actually found the less violent of the onscreen killings harder to watch, and the queasiest moment I had was devoid of violence during bland visuals with Affleck's voice over when I was sucker punched by just how dark his character was thinking.

The supporting cast is excellent and includes Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas and Tom Bower. Bill Pullman puts in a somewhat hammy, but thoroughly enjoyable cameo that gives us some light relief before the inevitably downbeat denouement.

As far as the violence debate is concerned, it pales by comparison to today's bevy of indefensible torture porn horrors, or the meat-grinder of testosterone heavy action movies. It is certainly less violent than previous sparkers of similar "nasty" debate, Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer, or Man Bites Dog (the former justifiably had pointedly horrible violence, the latter pointlessly gratuitous except for a single sick joke). It's closer to tone to either A History of Violence (but it's not secretly gleeful in the acts, and it is less a meditation on violence as on the moral vacuum as the source), or No Country For Old Men (whose arbitrarily psychotic killer could quite happily flip coins with the anti-hero of this piece). Well, in any case, now that we have our moral compasses out, I've given you a few reference points, you've got your bearings, you can seek out or avoid this fine film, detouring round the offputting furore.



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