British director Michael Winterbottom accused of indulging in “torture porn.”
It has been called one of the most gratuitously violent and misogynist films of recent times. When it was premiered at the Sundance festival in January there were stories about how women, reeling from shock and anger, walked out while some threw up watching the extreme violence visited upon two defenceless female characters by their sadomasochistic lover.
The post-screening press conference of its British director Michael Winterbottom, known for such widely acclaimed political movies as The Road to Guantanamo and Welcome to Sarajevo, descended into chaos as critics and members of the audience accused him of indulging in “torture porn.” They were also angry that Sundance festival permitted such a film to be shown.
Well, The Killer Inside Me — the story of a young psychopath cop who goes horribly off the rails — arrived in Britain last week and the reaction was pretty much the same. In a central London theatre, where I saw it, the audience gasped with horror. At least one woman was seen leaving minutes after the film started, and two sitting next to me tried to shield their eyes with their hands and appeared to gag as the horror on the screen unfolded.
Most people — and not just women — appeared impatient to get out even as the credits were still rolling. Those, approached for reaction, had only one word to describe the film: “weird.”
I have seen some pretty violent films, including Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange which Kubrick himself (something unprecedented for a director) was forced to withdraw from public exhibition in Britain following protests, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer raw force and pointlessness of the violence in The Killer Inside Me. The faces of the two female victims are reduced literally to pulp as they are repeatedly punched with a gloved fist: we see them recoil with terror and their bloodied bodies, writhing with pain, go limp and fall to the ground.
What is shocking is the graphic in-your-face depiction of violence especially against women; and hence the charge of misogyny. Take the murder of the character played by Kate Hudson. As she lies on the floor dying, groaning with pain, blood streaming down her mashed face, her terror-stricken eyes still half open, the assassin — in a final twist of humiliation — strips her of her remaining dignity by inexplicably rearranging her clothes to reveal her naked body. And, next, we see her bladder burst and water oozing out.
In contrast, violence against male victims happens either off-screen, or is depicted in a less dramatic manner.
Irrespective of the misogyny element — and there's no doubt it is there whether or not the film-maker intended it — The Killer Inside Me remains a deeply violent film, a fact acknowledged even by those who believe that at some level it has something serious to say.
The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw, while describing it as a “seriously intentioned movie which addresses and confronts the question of male hate and male violence in the form of a nightmare,” wrote: “Be warned: this really is a very violent movie, the like of which I haven't experienced since Gaspar Noé's legendary 2002 film Irréversible…. Winterbottom consciously turns the provocation dial up to 11, to 12, to 13 and beyond by making the victim actually appear to be grateful and submissive.”
The question, many are asking, is whether the film could have told the same story without resorting to full-blown violence?
“The thing is, you could make this movie and tell the same story without actually showing all the violence in such a graphic way. Movies imply things all the time. It's a choice to show this type of violence toward women…,” writes Gwen Sharp, an American feminist blogger on her site, Sociological Images.
Critics recall how in Psycho Alfred Hitchcock was able to convey the terrifying violence of the famous shower murder scene by just showing the victim slowing slipping into a heap and the bath filling up with blood.
The problem, one suspects, is the eponymous pulp novel on which the film is based. American novelist Jim Thompson's 1950s thriller, which Kubrick described as “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered,” is about Lou Ford, a young deputy sheriff (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) in a small Texas town where (he notes with undisguised irony)” everyone thinks they know you, just because they have grown up with you.” Beneath his façade of normality, he is consumed by some dark demons that come to fore when he is drawn into a sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute (played with great charm by Jessica Alba) whom he tries to kill in what is likely to go down as one of the most revolting scenes in modern cinema — matched only by the scene in which he murders his girlfriend (Kate Hudson). A killing spree follows, finally, ending in an “apocalypse now” style climax.
Mr. Winterbottom says he wanted to remain faithful to the original novel.
“I was trying to make a very literal version of the book and the scenes are shocking in the book. So should it be shocking when Lou punches Joyce...? Yes, it should be shocking. It should be as shocking as it would be in real life. But not in the sense that ‘oh this'll be great because it'll cause a lot of controversy,'” he told the BBC.
The film's release coincided with Britain's worst case of random killing by a lone gunman in decades as a taxi driver in the picturesque Lake District went on a rampage killing 12 innocent people before turning the gun on himself. Nobody would perhaps ever know why a man, described by friends and neighbours as a friendly “ordinary bloke,” ended up doing what he did.
Like Lou, perhaps?