Film Commentary

The (Alleged) Misogyny Inside Winterbottom

December 2, 2010

Directed by:  Michael Winterbottom / Release: Jun 18, 2010 / IFC Films / R, 1 hr. 48 min

Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me is currently playing on Showtime, and as things go, I happened to give it a shot. The movie is based on a 50’s era book, written as a memoir of a killer living in a southern Texas town. It stars Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Tom Bower, and so on.

I’m not recommending or berating the film in one way or another. I also may spoil several plot details, so be prepared if you are reading on.

There was a bit of controversy when the film was released, particularly in regards to the violent acts depicted against women.  Some were calling Winterbottom a misogynist, an accusation that he answered. (He said, “No, I’m not.”)

Not that the accusations would be totally ungrounded, if this film were used as sole evidence to the claim. The scene where Joyce (Jessica Alba) is beaten to a pulp lingers on and on. Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) continues to wail on her face with a methodical, but brutal display of force. There was a particular part of that scene where he hits her so hard she is sent flying to the wall. My reaction, apparently, isn’t isolated.

Later in the movie, his fiancé (Kate Hudson) shows up to his home, as she has been led to believe by Lou that the two will go away for a couple days to elope. When she arrives, he spits in her face, punches her in the gut, kicks her a few times, pulls her dress over her face, and watches as she urinates on his floor.

It is quite disturbing.

Now, as I finished watching the film, I couldn’t really decide if I liked it or not. There  were many reasons why I should or could like it. Casey’s performance was very appealing. Aside from his squeaky voice (or maybe because of it), he seemed to be oscillating like a pendulum from an extremely brutal to completely fragile figure. He exemplified the delusion of a sociopath in relation to everything around him. The rest of the cast was also very capable.

The camera work was phenomenal, and the cinematography was very well executed. The music was well used, there were good parts in the dialogue, and the pacing seemed good enough to keep me on edge.

At the same time, I had no intention of keeping this film among any of my favorite or most liked (or even just liked) films of the past few years.

Was it because of the violence? Was it because of the somewhat ambiguous story elements? (To this end, the story uses some flashbacks scenes that are never fully explained, such as an incident when Lou as a boy was apparently raping a child, or other scenes where Kate Hudson’s character was shown as somewhat of a sadomasochist sex addict herself.)

There was something to be said of the story. Somehow, somewhere, I was drawn in. Through whatever suspension of disbelief that was created, I reacted with dread and awe at the degeneration of the central character. It affected me.

If the film had not succeeded, at some element, then the violence might have seemed almost comical or completely ineffectual. But the contextualization of these murders made them more sinister. More surprising.

It’s strange that movies like those in the Saw franchise, and others of similar content, seem to do so well at the box office. People are willing to see disgusting depictions of violence, but in a certain context. However, this film provides something that may not be as gruesome (as far as guts and gore are concerned), but that—at least to me—is far more menacing and disturbing.

What makes the film even more quixotic is that, in the final scenes, Lou makes a reference to the characters that show up to his house. There is the DA (Simon Baker) who has been on his tail the entire movie, Conway (Ned Beatty), the villainous businessman, Joyce, who was previously thought dead, another deputy (Matthew Maher) who had been previously introduced, and a previously unseen deputy.

Lou looks at them and names them each, including the new deputy and describes them each, calling Conway “the villain.” But when he gets to the new deputy, he says something like, “You, don’t even get to say anything. They didn’t give you any lines.” I don’t remember it word for word, but it seemed so out of place. It was self-referential and unnecessary.

That moment served to break any sort of suspension of disbelief that had been built up, and made everything that came before it seem like an exercise in evoking shock and awe, just for the hell of it.

Now, that is a very minor element to an otherwise very intriguing tale. But even aside from that, I still would have a very hard time trying to reconcile any sort of reaction to this movie other than the one I currently have. It is steeped in a sense of dread and a perturbed reaction to the grotesque.

In fact, according to Wally Hammond’s interview with Winterbottom in Timeout: London, the filmmaker (who was accused of being a misogynist) stated that the violence in this particular film needed to be shocking and horrific, as opposed to the oft-exploited breed of cinematic violence that is crafted to be enjoyable or “entertaining” (Saw, Hostel, Cabin Fever, etc).  In that sense, I do agree that violence in movies is usually used as a form of entertainment, and perhaps, that just shows how deranged we are, as far as the viewing public (at least in North America) is concerned.

Consider Winterbottom’s response to one of Hammond’s key interview questions on the subject of misogyny and violence in film:

Since Sundance and Berlin, your film has had a rough ride. You’ve been accused of irresponsibility, nihilism and misogyny. Do you feel you are guilty of any of those things?

[MW]:  No! At Sundance, a woman stood up and said, “This is disgusting and the festival is disgusting for showing this film.” I think the gist of what she was saying was that the violence was shocking and horrible and so the film was immoral.

I completely disagree with that. What would be immoral would be to show violence that wasn’t shocking, violence that seemed enjoyable or fun or attractive or simple or easy.

I think the area of misogyny is a difficult one. In the book, the victims are Joyce [Lou Ford’s prostitute girlfriend played by Alba] and Amy [his long-term lover played by Kate Hudson].  So, for me, that was a given. This is the material – and we were going to make it.

Now, like I said before, this is not a film that I will probably see again, or list as one of my most favorite or important films of the past couple years. But it certainly won’t escape my mind, whether I like it or not.

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