The morality of violent films


The Killer Inside Me (R). Director: Michael Winterbottom. Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty. 98 minutes

The Killer Inside Me, Kate Hudson, Case Affleck, Jessica Alba'I wanted to show that if you choose to kill someone by punching them, it's a long, slow, difficult process,' UK filmmaker Michael Winterbottom told The Guardian's Rachel Cooke. 'Also, I want you to have the space to think about what's going on. Why is he doing this when he loves her?'

The controversial and prolific Winterbottom is referring to a gruelling scene from his latest film The Killer Inside Me, in which one of the female characters, Joyce (Alba), is pummelled nearly to death by the gloved hands of her lover, charming sociopath Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Affleck). It is a scene of shocking, visceral violence, which has produced anguished, even angry, audience reactions during festival screenings around the world.

Was it necessary? When it comes to gratuitous content, 'necessary' is always a debatable term. But certainly, as evidenced by the above quote, the scene is not thoughtless.

In his previous films such as Guantanamo torture film Road to Guantanamo and the pornographic relationship drama 9 Songs Winterbottom has shown himself to be a filmmaker who does not exploit  disturbing content thoughtlessly. Such content is at least bolstered by a well thought-through premise, although it is not to Winterbottom's credit that his intelligent intent can be overshadowed by the gratuitousness. The Killer Inside Me falls into this category.

The film is a portrait of Lou and his psychopathy. His violence against Joyce is one aspect of an elaborate scheme designed to mete revenge upon an unknowing nemesis (Beatty). The remainder of the film details further acts of violence (none quite as shocking as the first) and manipulation as Lou attempts to elude suspicion, and as his mental state deteriorates. Flashbacks to an abusive relationship with his mother, and to an act of childhood abuse against a young girl, hint at an origin to his illness.

The film is commended by a classy noir sensibility and intense performances. But it is also cold and, in parts, patchy and confusing, which is one reason why the scenes of extreme violence don't quite stand up to scrutiny.

Lou's perennially calm voiceover indicates a first-person perspective that reflects Jim Thompson's 1952 novel on which the film is based, and which hints at subjectivity. The unlikely extent to which Joyce, and Lou's girlfriend, Amy (Hudson), are shown to enjoy their sado-masochistic sexual encounters with Lou suggest we are being offered a skewed version of events, tainted by Lou's conflation of sex with violence. This is a clever trick, although hard to pull off on film, a medium where audiences tend to accept what they see as the 'truth'.

But the violence still says more about the character than it does about the filmmaker. Lou shoots or hangs his male victims, but prefers the more personal medium of his fists when assaulting Joyce. This lends a deranged intimacy to this protracted act of violence. Sickeningly, he apologises and expresses love to Joyce even as he destroys her. He does love her, so the intimacy of this violence reveals it to also be an act of self-destruction.

'Lou is a very weak person who has been messed up by his childhood, and he has all sorts of insecurities,' Winterbottom told The Hollywood Reporter of the character, who at one point in the film describes himself as someone with a foot 'on each side of the fence', waiting to 'split down the middle'. 'I think anyone watching this film saying this in some way supports or encourages violence is watching the film in a very perverse way.'

That may be so, but one does have to wonder what scenes of brutal violence against women contribute to the betterment of the public imagination. Still, Winterbottom is right to point out that this is no less (or, surely, more) moral than popular action films that use violence for the purpose of titillation. Violence is shocking, and so it is both human and right to be appalled by the violence contained in The Killer Inside Me.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival. 

Topic tags: The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom, Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty



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Existing comments

Brings to mind 'Once were warriors which apparently initiated a series of programmes dealing directly with domestic violence in New Zealand. Nevertheless I thought it glamourised the nature of punching.

Danny Rose | 19 August 2010  

Violent films such as the one Tim Kroenert reviews above have a very negative affect on the viewers. There is so much real violence happening around the world. This movie is "make-believe" and helps take people to depths that they had never thought about. I find movies like this to be very offensive.

A good wholesome family movie showing goodness and charity would do a lot more for viewers than this morbid presentation of terrible violence.

Trent | 19 August 2010  

No, Tim. He deosn't love her. He wants to own her, to treat her as his possession. He can destroy what he owns - that is his right - so his violence towards her is his claiming ownership. That's not my idea of love.

Erik H | 19 August 2010  

I disagree Erik H. I think there is genuine tenderness in their relationship, and the fact that Lou is plagued throughout the film by fond memories of Joyce to me indicates real remorse. He certainly doesn't treat her with love, but that doesn't mean he doesn't feel it.

Tim Kroenert | 19 August 2010  

I was reminded, as I was reading your review, of the novel and film of The Grifters, before you mentioned that this too is a film based on a Jim Thompson novel! I haven't seen this film, but there is something very complex about the kind of violence, and the kinds of relationships between men and women (and mothers), which is characteristic of Jim Thompson as a writer. And you certainly get an unforgettable impression of what a punch can really mean. Wholesome it ain't; but there is at least a Jim Thompson truth about it.

Cassandra | 19 August 2010  

Seems the same spirit pervades cinema worldwide. Late last year I went along to see the Chinese movie The Message, looking forward to a wartime espionage thriller. Instead, the viewing audience was assaulted with gratuitous scenes of systematic torture.

Gavin | 19 August 2010  

I would like to hear a sermon preached or school assembly discuss the wisdom of your last paragraph.

Ray O'Donoghue | 09 September 2010  

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