The Sadomasochist Inside
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Leo Owen finds out why The Killer Inside Me provoked gasps, remarks of disgust and even walk-outs after its first screening during the Sundance Film Festival...
“I hope that it has got a complexity that will cause different people to have different feelings about Lou Ford. Lou is a killer – but people in the story love him as well. He is an incredibly complex, interesting character.”
Thus says Director, Michael Winterbottom, of his latest controversial release, The Killer Inside Me. Winterbottom has directed everything from literary adaptations to science fiction, comedy, family drama, westerns and road movies, and is no stranger to controversy after critics attacked his depiction of sex in Nine Songs.
The premiere of The Killer Inside Me at this year’s Sundance Film Festival ruffled feathers for its excessive graphic violence and portrayal of women. Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp novel certainly elicited strong feeling, although perhaps not in the way he had hoped after the first audience question came from an outraged woman demanding: “I don’t understand how Sundance could book this movie. How dare you? How dare Sundance?”
The Killer Inside Me follows the rise and fall of Lou Ford, a deputy Sheriff serial killer in a small close-knit American frontier town. The scenes audience members took offence to involve the protagonist’s brutal and relentless pummelling of two female victims until one resembles “stewed meat”. The duration of the violence highlights the level of commitment and psychotic determination needed to beat a person to death. Ford’s male victims are not pulverized in the same gruelling manner and their deaths aren’t the same close-ups shots that have caused Winterbottom to be accused of glorifying violence against women and creating a misogynistic work.
In response to this charge, Winterbottom has said: “The implication is that we should not be allowed to show violence against women - no one is encouraging that. There’s a lot of violence against women in the world. You can show men and women being killed, and as long as it’s entertaining, it’s ok. And if it’s brutal, we don’t want to see it. I think anyone watching this film saying this supports or encourages violence is just watching the film in a very perverse way.”
Winterbottom sees Lou as “a victim” because Lou’s father abused him, explaining that in the novel: “Jim Thompson has an almost straightforward explanation of how his father castrated him and how this sexual violence and abuse by the father was being passed down. Lou is victim as much as an abuser. He does perverse things - destroys people who seem to love him and whom he seems to love and could be happy with. This potential for love seems to trigger the desire to destroy. I wanted an actor who was able to somehow convey the sense that what's going on inside his head is not necessarily the same as what he's doing. I want the audience to get the sense that Lou Ford's interior world is at odds with how he behaves.”
Casey Affleck was selected to play Lou Ford, in his first major role since 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and his Oscar-nominated performance in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. His masterful depiction of a man so psychotically detached from accepting reality that he navigates his own downfall, is shocking but certainly to be remembered. On the surface Lou is a harmless well trusted deputy who has lived his whole life in the same place and is happily attached to his childhood sweetheart, Amy, until he meets Joyce, the town prostitute, and memories of his disturbed past surface, triggering his hunger for revenge and violent tendencies. “She draws something out of him that's been repressed for a long time. Once it comes out, it feels so good that he just can't stay away from her. He begins to feel that he's going to lose control so he has to kill her,” says Affleck.
"Although S & M is now recognised as a less marginal facet of sexuality, and milder acts are widely enjoyed behind closed doors with shops like Ann Summers selling Bondage Starter Kits, the hardcore element of the scene is practised by a tiny minority, and it’s illegal to carry out certain activities or leave a lasting mark on someone else’s body"
Lou’s violent nature is first apparent when he viciously thrashes Joyce’s buttocks and realises she is enjoying it and then later discovers that Amy enjoys the same sadomasochistic treatment. Although S & M is now recognised as a less marginal facet of sexuality, and milder acts are widely enjoyed behind closed doors with shops like Ann Summers selling Bondage Starter Kits, the hardcore element of the scene is practised by a tiny minority, and it’s illegal to carry out certain activities or leave a lasting mark on someone else’s body. Lou fits into this tiny minority acting as the dominator or sadist who inflicts pain or punishment to trusting sexual partners in order to get a high. Lou is representative of a tiny proportion of this minority who are damaged by their desires and no longer see S & M as about empowerment or pleasure. For this small segment of the population, who have most likely suffered emotional difficulties during childhood due to parental abuse, misunderstanding or repeated emotional humiliation, S & M becomes an uncontrollable addiction, all-consuming, taking over their lives to the extent that their behaviour frightens even them.
"Lou is a classic example of someone who tries to use sadomasochistic acts to forget his pain and in doing so becomes so addicted, he destroys loved ones around him"
Those who engage in sadomasochistic activities want, in an unconscious and silent way, to control and dominate the other, so as to manage feelings of intense anxiety. People who engage in sadomasochistic acts can't tolerate mental pain. They replace mental pain with physical pain and in so doing feel triumphant over emotional suffering. They find it difficult to tolerate sadness, hurt, rejection, and other ordinary painful human feelings, and rid themselves of them by inflicting them, so to speak, on the body of the ‘other’,” explains Carlos Fishman, a consultant at the Portland Clinic in London, a specialist psychotherapy unit that treats people with sexual problems. Unable to decide between the girl-next-door or the town whore and ignore his suspicions about his adopted brother’s death, Lou is a classic example of someone who tries to use sadomasochistic acts to forget his pain and in doing so becomes so addicted, he destroys loved ones around him.
Winterbottom interprets The Killer Inside Me as less about violence and more “about a potential beauty that's being destroyed - a possibility of love that is being wasted.” When Lou meets Joyce there is an instant animal attraction between them and their relationship develops from this initial lust until she falls completely in love with him and becomes his muse, whose love channels and feeds his suppressed violent tendencies. Jessica Alba is famed for her no-nudity contract clauses, yet turned down the role of the more meagre Amy, preferring Joyce’s character: “I guess it's always fun to play a bad girl. I loved the tragedy of the love story, the fact that she's the one who sort of ignites the passion and essence of who he is, which is a killer.”
Joyce’s nemesis, Amy, is played by Kate Hudson who prepares for each part she takes by visiting a psychologist to find parallels in her own life. Talking about good girl Amy, Hudson says: “She loves huge and yet underneath, there’s this girl quite open to abuse. Some people need the fight to feel that they’re alive until it kills them which is really what her character is. The perfect world for Amy is probably sadomasochism.” Amy’s complete trust in Lou is characteristic of the submissive in sadomasochistic sex-play. “Lou’s self-loathing projects straight onto Amy,” explains Winterbottom.
Lou is not the only character to have caused outrage as a result of his cool-headed multiple assassinations or the disturbing brutality in which these acts are shown. Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist was surrounded by the same controversy for its scenes of genital mutilation, Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho caused a similar stir for its equally calm and collected serial killer lead and Nick Broomfield’s documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer was equally uncomfortable viewing for its unflinching and often sympathetic depiction of a real life killer. Not to mention a whole host of so-called “torture porn” films that almost pass unnoticed but are overflowing with unrelenting graphic violence, seemingly existing to titillate, rather than uncompromisingly present a character.
Stanley Kubrick, for whom Thompson wrote The Killing and Paths of Glory, once described The Killer Inside Me as "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered."
The story is not only believable but not far moved from reality says Winterbottom: “It's a story you read in the newspapers and see on TV all the time: people whose lives are being broken in some way through violent acts caused by feelings of inadequacy or need. People know that things are going on but as long as you're polite it doesn't matter.” Alba too reflects on the unsavoury elements of society and the difficult subject-matter in the film: “I think people like to wrap everything up in a pretty bow and pretend that we all live in gingerbread houses, in candy land and that everything is just sweet and nice and pretty and fun but I find that's just 10% of life. 90% is trying to get there.”
"Although Winterbottom has been criticised for depictions in The Killer Inside Me, the reality is that he is merely translating scenes from the novel onto the big screen."
Although Winterbottom has been criticised for depictions in The Killer Inside Me, the reality is that he is merely translating scenes from the novel onto the big screen. Thompson talks us through Lou’s tortured machinations, describing in grotesquely vivid detail the murders he commits, and Winterbottom takes much of this dialogue straight from the novel: “The story unfolds through these quite long, formal dialogue scenes.”
To comfortably tackle this challenging subject-matter, Winterbottom used small intimate closed-sets with minimal rehearsal time. Hudson compared filming to “like doing a play” and Alba has described how Winterbottom tried to make doing the sex scenes as comfortable as possible by using a small crew. She still found filming "terrifying", confiding: “As much as you're setting up an environment, you're still like, 'There's a camera pointing at me!’ I had pasties and undies on, I was never naked but still it's weird - especially with a stranger.”
Despite her discomfort, Alba enjoyed working with kindred spirit, Winterbottom: “He hates everything I hate - line readings, when a scene feels stagnant or rehearsed or when you feel like you're 'acting' or 'doing a movie.” She compares her performance to Annette Bening in The Grifters, Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler: “There was a lot of nudity but it was their sadness and their darkness that brought a humanity.”
Ironically, Winterbottom’s film is probably the most unsensational and faithful Thompson adaptation to date. Over the years there have been a number of Thompson adaptations, including two versions of The Getaway, After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters. Directors have been trying to adapt The Killer Inside Me since the mid 1950s with lots of big names attached to abandoned projects, such as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Quentin Tarantino. Eventually a version was released in 1976 with a relatively unknown cast that Winterbottom chose to ignore.
"Blurring the boundaries between sex and violence and love and hate, The Killer Inside Me has provoked audiences to take a stand and choose their extreme"
With considerable more clout behind him and a cast of household names, Winterbottom’s adaptation has attracted big media coverage, forcing him to defend his work and the misguided reactions of others: “The [Sundance] audience didn’t understand that Casey is not the hero. If you're going to tell a story told from the point of view of a killer, it is the way he tells it and sees it, not the way it happened. If you make a film about murder that isn't shocking, that's far worse; there are too many films with violence for people to enjoy. The film has no sense of pleasure in the violence – it is something very repulsive. In terms of how we depicted it, we were just trying to make it as close to the book as possible. The book is very shocking.”
Blurring the boundaries between sex and violence and love and hate, The Killer Inside Me has provoked audiences to take a stand and choose their extreme. Disgusted or impressed, it’s difficult not to appreciate Winterbottom’s brave and faithful adaptation and Affleck’s stunning performance.
The Killer Inside Me is on general release from 4 June.Check back at Shadowlocked soon for our review.
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