Friday, June 04, 2010

Tracing the Roots of "The Killer Inside Me"

Film Noir and sexual violence have gone hand in hand since the genre’s inception in the 1930’s. Battered molls, stolen kisses, emotionally abused wives; they are part and parcel of what we love about film noir. From a time when it was ok to shut a brazen woman up with a sharp slap to the face, film noir was rather cavalier in its treatment of women. However, in its heyday the notorious Hays Production Code was brought into effect, which was a censorship bill which enforced the strictest possible guidelines for “appropriate” imagery in film. This is where film noir started to get really naughty. All of the sultry glamour that has become synonymous with the genre is due to the art of allusion.

While film was finding it difficult to express itself, pulp fiction novels were at their trashiest.In 1952, Jim Thompson published his novel "The Killer Inside Me" which caused a sensation due to its graphic depiction of sex and violence and most importantly, the blurred line between the two. The protagonist is Lou Ford, a sunny, charming small-town cop who moonlights as a sadomasochist and a vicious murderer. The content of the book was shocking and also seemed to be making rather grand accusations about society's attempt to gloss over the darker aspects of life and art. The character of Lou Ford acts acts as narrator and, although a completely unreliable voice, he sounds as innocent and as wholesome as Forrest Gump. The reader figures out soon enough, through his actions, that he is in fact an evil psychopath who takes pleasure in torturing the women who love him.

As a piece of literature, "The Killer Inside Me" says a lot about the era it came from. It comments on the supression of the dark side of life and the dangers of this darkness leaking out in the most unimaginable ways. The book has some very graphic examples of sexual violence and these are particularly troubling because each event is described in the first person, and even justified in a very unconvincing way by Lou. Hollywood in the 1950's was not averse to violence. In fact, violence was seen as spectacle and very popular, but it was always suggested violence, never explicit. Sexuality on the other hand was not tolerated. These restrictions are what created Film Noir. Over the years, as censorship lost its grasp, Noir has become something altogether different. The sexuality that burst from the films of the 1940's
was suddenly visible for all to see in films such as Blue Velvet and Body Heat. Although we always think of wide-brimmed hats and femme fatales and monochrome cinematography, film noir has taken on a life of its own in modern cinema. Films such as "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" mirror the eroticism and somewhat emotionally detached sensibilities of Film Noir. More recently, films such as "L.A. Confidential" and "Brick" have embodied Noir more explicitly, openly recreating the genre and paying homage to it.

Finally, almost sixty years after its first publication, Thompson's novel is finally getting the adaptation it deserves (the rather dull 1976 film doesn't count) and it is wreaking havoc on every festival it screens at. Starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of "The Killer Inside Me" pulls no punches in its depiction of sex and violence and, sexual violence. There have been walk-outs and storm-outs and accusations flying that even the filmmakers are ashamed of themselves for creating such a nasty piece of work. Nasty is actually a fair accusation towards this film. This is a film with a dark heart, if it has one at all. Casey Affleck, perfectly cast, has created a character so believable, so hideous and so likeable (I use that term as loosely as possible) that it is easy to understand how women fall for his charms. His demeanour is so unassuming that nobody would ever suspect he hoardes so much darkness.

It took Hollywood sixty years to catch up with Thompson's book, and out of the darkness of the 1950s leaked a story that is so shocking that it can still cause uproar in our desensitised, media-savvy world.Investigating the blurred line between a little kinky fun in a sack and actual sexual violence is surely the best way to land yourself with a bunch of picketers outside your film (short of making a film with any sort of allusion to the Catholic religion). "The Killer Inside Me" is far more cavalier in its portrayal of sexual violence and because our narrator has little, if any, idea that he is a psychopath, there is nobody to condemn him. The only voice we hear is the voice of reason from Lou Ford and although any idiot can see he's not your typical hero, or even anti-hero, the violence portrayed is so frank and cruel that there is a distinct lack of judgement or condemnation going on within the film.

Despite the controversy there is much to admire in this film, most notably the impressively dark character of Lou Ford. He is a presursor to Hannibal Lecter, to Patrick Bateman, to Dexter; he was the first of the gentleman killers. When you consider this character came out of the early 1950's it is difficult not to admire him and fall in love with the story, however gruesome it may be. Sex and violence are what makes film noir, it is what shimmies off the screen and slinks into our hearts when we watch Film Noir. With "The Killer Inside Me" it could be argued that Noir has come full circle, finally rid of allusion and showing audiences all the darkness they can stomach...and even more in some cases.

 - Charlene Lydon

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