Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tough Guy 101: Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me”

By Lars Trodson

At one point during Michael Winterbottom’s appalling retelling of Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me”, lead character Lou Ford (played by Casey Affleck), reaches up to find a particular book on a shelf.

As he picks out the book, the camera lingers long enough for the audience to see that one of the titles on the shelf is “The Basic Writings Of Sigmund Freud.” This is okay, because that book was published in 1938, and “The Killer Inside Me” takes place in the late 1950s.

Only the book jacket for this specific Modern Library edition was not available until at least 1977, when the Modern Library updated its look to the tan dust jacket with the fat brown decorative font.

I suppose it shouldn’t matter, but by this time my mind had wandered on to things that didn’t really have to do with the plot. I haven’t seen a movie so dumb and badly made since maybe the Sean Penn remake of “All the King’s Men” several years back.

But at least that stupid movie had the good sense to at least try to be respectful to the women  in the cast. “Killer” is a movie that will only get one of its two female leads out of bed so they can be beat up. Sometimes they get beat up in bed, which I suppose is Winterbottom’s attempt at economical storytelling.

If there is one movie cliche that should have been voted off the screen by now, it is the one in which the male character pushes the girl around, slaps her face, smacks her up against the wall, only to have her moments later moaning in her attacker’s arms. Props to the dramatist who first thought this up, because it was probably startling for audiences. But I’m guessing that was 60 or 70 years ago (what year did James Cagney push a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face? 1930?) Anyway, it’s time to give it up, because it’s disgusting.

But Lou, who has a killer inside him, you see, doesn’t just beat up his women. He whips Jessica Alba with a belt, which does not apparently impede her desire for rough sex. As good girl school teacher Amy (played by Kate Hudson) goes down on Ford she detects the scent of the prostitute. But all good time Lou Ford has to do is jam his hand into her crotch to bring her around. This is a fun time.

There’s more, of course. You’ve probably read about it.

Here is what Winterbottom and countless other filmmaker’s attempting to make a new kind of film noir just don’t seem to understand. In film noir it is never the violence itself that is exciting, it is always the threat of violence -- the menace that hangs over everything. You need characters that always expect to get beat up, or knifed, or shot, because they know it is the consequence for having lived the life they have chosen to lead. Their toughness comes out in the fact that they’ll take what’s coming to them.

Film noirs are also cynical, and that may be why we can’t really make them anymore. The best film noirs came in the 1940s, when America was cynical about everything. It was just after the Great Depression and during the Second World War. We could be cynical about people and institutions -- especially our own -- and even spit in their eye, because we were tough.

But now we’re not cynical enough about what we should be and too afraid of things we just don’t know enough about.

It’s hard to be tough, boy, when you’re afraid of your own shadow.