That filmmakers should be drawn again and again to the work of American crime novelist Jim Thompson is not surprising. Thompson’s dark gems are tightly written, brutally compelling and as psychologically complex as they are morally ambivalent. It would be great then if those directors made the effort to read Thompson properly, if they did not oversimplify and often entirely miss the point of the novels. Indeed it is rather frustrating that, with a few exceptions, Thompson’s remarkable body of work should have led to so many disappointing offerings, and Michael Winterbottom’s new adaptation of The Killer inside Me is a particularly deplorable entry into the canon.
The British director’s film, co-scripted by John Curran, is the second screen version of what is often considered one of Thompson’s finest works (the first was Burt Kennedy’s 1976 film, with Stacey Keach in the lead). It stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the outwardly sweet-natured but dim-witted Deputy Sheriff of a small Texas town, who under his Southern good manners hides a frightening intelligence and psychopathic impulses. When naí¯ve rich boy Elmer (Jay R Ferguson) falls for Joyce (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who has set up shop on the edge of town, his father, local big shot Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), asks Lou to move her on. But Lou instead gets involved with Joyce and decides to use the situation to seek revenge for past misdeeds. His plan does not quite work out and Lou increasingly struggles to keep control of events, a situation that is further complicated by his relationship to girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson).
This story of deceit and death is the occasion for scenes of extreme violence, which has already generated heated controversy. There are two particularly grisly murder scenes, in which the women are subjected to extended brutality and degradation. The issue here is not the graphic violence per se, but its presentation and context. There is a tremendous sense of indulgence in the beautifully shot murder scenes, and the copious amount of gratuitous sex adds to the sensational aspect of the film and the objectification of the women. The characterisation of the main female characters is indeed spectacularly reductive: always seen half-naked and in bed, they are both stunningly gorgeous and like rough sex… This, coupled with the fact that they only appear in scenes of sex or violence, gives the film a rather nasty whiff of unredeemed misogyny.
Winterbottom has said in interviews that he wanted to be ‘faithful’ to the source novel, and this has served to justify the violent excesses of the film. He is most probably not misogynistic, but his incredibly unsophisticated literal approach is particularly unsuited to capturing a novel as ambiguous as The Killer inside Me: Winterbottom scrupulously follows to the letter a book that actually requires reading between the lines (could literalness be one of Winterbottom’s defining directorial traits? Real migrants in In This World, real sex in 9 Songs…). Crucially, the film fails to coherently convey the fact that Lou is an unreliable narrator and that what he tells us might not be true, something that would help explain the characterisation of the women and distance the film from his view of them. This is particularly important in the murder of the second woman. In the book, Lou teases the reader, making us wait for the full narrative, possibly because what he has done has triggered strong emotions in him, possibly because he likes to play games, probably for both reasons and more. That section is a key moment in the book: it explores hidden nuances in the main characters, reveals the complexity of Lou’s psychology and of his relationship to Amy, and confirms that the reality described by Lou is a fictional construct. This, if translated into the screen version in some form, would have given a much better understanding of the violence and made it far less dubious.
This is something that Alain Corneau and his co-scriptwriter, Oulipo novelist George Perec, successfully managed to do in Série noire, their adaptation of Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (1979), which, like The Killer inside Me, features an unreliable, murderous narrator. The brilliant opening sequence shows Patrick Dewaere’s Franck Poupart role-playing in the middle of a wasteland, shadow-boxing in the rain before dancing to Duke Ellington while holding his small radio, entirely in a world of his own creation. This prepares us for Poupart’s endless re-positioning of himself and his constant reconstruction of an unsatisfactory reality, and most disturbingly of all, for his remarkable ability to actually believe in his warped version of events.
Paradoxically, by relocating the story to a drab Parisian suburb, and making Poupart a hopeless door-to-door salesman, Corneau and Perec convey more of Thompson’s spirit than Winterbottom’s ‘faithful’ version. They understood one crucial thing: Thompson’s psychotic men are losers and misfits who are uncomfortable in the confines of their insular, petty-minded surroundings. Winterbottom does not get it: he channels Thompson’s savage view of humanity through memories of glamorous Hollywood noir cinema; the women look like stars, not like provincial beauties; the cars are desirable curvy objects straight out of 50s advertising; the cinematography is as flawless and slick as the women. But his noir pastiche completely misses the seedy side of the evil described by Thompson, the mediocrity of the hypocrisy, decay, immorality and viciousness, the small-town-ness of it all, present even in the most disturbing acts of malevolence.
This profound understanding of Thompson’s world makes Corneau’s Série noire one of the best adaptations of the novelist’s work on screen by far. The other exceptionally good Thompson adaptation happens to be another French film: Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon (1981) takes one of Thompson’s most accomplished novels, Pop. 1280, and transposes it to colonial Africa, a setting that not only perfectly suits, but also intensifies, the climate of corruption of the original novel and its uncompromising vision of the rotting human soul. Clearly, Tavernier and his co-scriptwriter Jean Aurenche, like Corneau and Perec before them, had made the effort to read the book closely. Shame Winterbottom’s literary sensibilities are not quite as developed.