The controversy around The Killer Inside Me's unflinching portrayal of violence is misplaced -- it is the use of violence as slick entertainment and a means to self-reflection that is truly disturbing.
Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 pulp novel The Killer Inside Me, has been the focus of controversy since its initial screening at Sundance. Its graphic portrayal of murders by the film’s main character, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) has garnered reactions from “misogynist” to “feminist", with arguments centering around the realism of the violence. The more “realistically” violence is portrayed, the less appealing and sexy it is. Stylized violence, whether from the rapidly-edited action movie or the over-the-top horror film, is so unreal it doesn’t leave much of a mark.
To its credit, The Killer Inside Me does not treat its two most brutal sequences as entertainment, but as the horrible acts they are meant to portray. The violence is neither glamorized, nor played for laughs. Its main ingredient is sexual violence, but does not feature rape or nudity. The sex and the violence, both intensely filmed, are kept to separate scenes but are inextricably linked in the mind of the main character.
Unlike most films set in the past, The Killer Inside Me is not a comment on its time or location (1950’s West Texas); its story seems to exist in a vacuum. It is not an analysis of 1950’s America; it is not political or nostalgic. It does not use its violence as a metaphor for a time, a place, social structures, or human nature.
This distinguishes it from another recent arthouse film featuring far more violence and degradation, but has been almost universally applauded -- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish film’s voyeuristic attention to the acts and threats of sexual violence reveal them as entertainment, used to advance the plot between the two main characters. Yes, the film seems to say, all this violence is shocking and terrible, but those rapes and murders are just symbols of upper-class Swedish society. They’re not, you know, “real", and therefore constitute an evening’s entertainment.
The Killer Inside Me resembles very little that other recent adaptation of a 20th century Texan serial killer novel, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. Winterbottom’s film does not contain one shred of humor, not even the “black humor” that is so often used to lighten the tension between heavy scenes. This unrelenting seriousness makes for unpleasant viewing, to be sure, but a film about a serial killer has every reason to be unpleasant.
The Killer Inside Me does share the Coens’ famous device of not displaying a key plot point (in both cases, the murder of an important character), drawing the audience’s attention to our own desire to see the bloody sequences play out. This is one of the few similarities between the films, as No Country for Old Men uses its creepy, largely non-specified violence to comment on The Meaning of Life Itself and the human condition. It makes for compelling storytelling, but surely using a serial killer as a plot device to provoke audience self-understanding is more cynical than using a serial killer to illustrate the sickening acts of serial killing.
The uses of violence as entertainment, as humor, as voyeurism, is much more disturbing than the graphic scenes featured in The Killer Inside Me. Violence should be repugnant and disgusting on screen, just like it is in real life.