The Killer Inside Me

Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 noir novel has been roundly criticised for its scenes of excessive violence. Joanne Savage asks if the on-screen brutality can be justified

When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, The Killer Inside Me was immediately charged with misogyny and with glamorising violence against women. The critical hullabaloo largely centred on one particularly brutal scene, where a frenzied, leather-gloved Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) beats his prostitute lover (Jessica Alba) until her beautiful, anguished face is reduced to, as the script describes it, 'hamburger meat'.

Set in 1950s Texas the aesthetic of the film is as prim, luminous and uncomplicatedly immaculate as an Edward Hopper painting. It is all 'yes Ma’am, no Ma’am', cherry-cream pie and sun-scorched horizon lines, until deputy sheriff Lou turns psychopathic killer. He is asked to chase Joyce (Alba) out of town. Instead she slaps him, he beats her with his belt and – somewhat improbably – they embark on a sadomasochistic affair heavy on spanking.

The conclusion of their entanglement is a horrifically graphic

murder scene which forces you to watch Lou obliterate the woman he just made love to. He reminds her of how much he cares about her even as he delivers the fatal blows. Plenty of people walked out of the cinema during this scene, as they did at Sundance. Only the entirely unfeeling could watch the extended brutality without feeling sick or looking away to escape the full effect.

After this savagery the film limps along, with half-hearted attempts by the local authorities to get to the bottom of the crime. Unsuspected and on the loose, Ford soon kills again, this time his picture-perfect fiancée Amy (Kate Hudson). His passion for her somehow easily slips from desire and marriage plans to spitting in her face and kicking her into unconsciousness on the kitchen floor. Again, it is painful, upsetting viewing.

Can it be justified? And is director Michael Winterbottom glamorising violence against women by giving it such protracted exposure? ?

In Winterbottom’s defence, there has to be a distinction drawn between representation and endorsement. Just because the director has decided to depict the violence of a psychopathic man against women does not suggest that he approves of the character’s actions or that he is glamorising his misogyny. 

To hold a mirror up to sexual violence is not to condone or prettify it. Winterbottom’s portrayal of the gruesomeness of it all operates as an effective critique of such behaviour. The Killer Inside Me seems to be about taking the audience closer to the reality of violence. If you feel repulsed and sickened, so much the better – your moral compass is still intact.

What seems more problematic is the way consensual sadomasochistic sex seems to be shown to easily spill over into full-blown violence, as though spanking and bondage were obvious preludes to a brutal punch-up. Winterbottom may not have intended to make such a connection, but the way the film repeatedly draw parallels between the energy of sex and violence is discomfiting.

There are some attempts to show the female characters breaking out of the masochistic posturing required of them in Lou’s sadistic bedroom. Both Joyce and Amy lash him back with his leather belt. Yet overall the message is something troublingly akin to Sylvia Plath’s assertion in 'Daddy', that, at least where sexual congress is concerned, 'Every woman adores a fascist'.

Plath was of course not being literal here, but her poem pointed up the masochistic tendency she figures as inherent in female sexuality – pinpointing the uncomfortable ways in which female desire can end in subjection rather than empowerment. The Killer Inside Me shows that some women can and do love fascists, but they never deserve or want a boot in the face.

The Killer Inside Me is on general release now.