By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 27, 2010 at 7:24AM
It's a director's worst nightmare. The night of your world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the first questioner from the audience is an outraged woman: "I don't understand how Sundance could book this movie," she said. "How dare you? How dare Sundance?"
Others in the Eccles crowd were also disturbed by the brutal hands-on beating of two beautiful women in Michael Winterbottom's tough noir The Killer Inside Me, starring Casey Affleck as deputy sheriff Lou Ford in 50s Texas. Kate Hudson plays his fiance. "The violence is shocking in the book and it's shocking in the film," Winterbottom responded. "It's not a police procedural. The story is being told by someone who's crazy. The story is the way he tells it and sees it, not the way it happened. The film has no sense of pleasure in the violence."
Later on the phone, Winterbottom admits that he was "taken aback, to be honest," by this feedback to his first film shot in America.
The movie is quite faithful to Jim Thompson's 1952 novel, he says: "Like all noirs, it has violence in it. It's violent and shocking, cathartic in a way. Thompson is trying to create this imaginary dark wild Texas. It's also a quite tender story. The audience didn't understand that when they watch this shocking violence, Casey is not the hero where the audience gets off on it. It should be shocking and brutal."
Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) may have done his job too well. His best-looking and most controlled film, The Killer Inside Me introduces an iconic period western sheriff's deputy --a representation of authority and order--telling his own story in voice-over narration. There's a whiff of S & M in his sex play, but anyone not familiar with the novel will be stunned when he impassively turns and punches to a bloody pulp a woman he clearly adores, with his fists, over and over. And soon after, he does it again. While Ford's male victims in the movie are shot cleanly with guns and hanged (that one is off-screen), the women are pulverized. In close-up.
Of course Winterbottom isn't asking us to get a charge out of this violence. But he may not realize how hard these scenes are to watch. It's the tactile, intimate aspect that is so disturbing, as beating these women is an extension of Ford's love for them. "He wants to destroy anyone who is intimate with him, and he wants to destroy himself," Winterbottom says. "The implication is that we should not be allowed to show violence against women. No one is encouraging that. There's a lot of violence against women in the world. You can show men and women being killed, and as long as it's entertaining, it's ok. And if it's brutal, we don't want to see it."
USA Today withdrew its report that star Jessica Alba walked out of the Sundance screening (her reps say that she supports the film). She's quite good in the movie; so is Affleck as the disturbing man who keeps attacking the people he loves. The story's headline: "The Killer Inside Me = The Andy Griffith Show directed by Eli Roth." (Here's The Guardian.)
It's hard to imagine anyone getting off on this movie the way they would, say, a Roth torture-porn horror flick like Hostel. The Killer Inside Me is an art film aimed at sophisticated art-house audiences who might have already read the source material. It will earn an R-rating. Controversy sells; the film has both supporters and detractors. Reviews will help to prep moviegoers for what they may or may not want to see. The point of attending a film festival is to be confronted with movies that are new and undigested. In this case, Sundance was absolutely right to program the film.
Producer Andrew Eaton hopes to land a distributor out of Sundance. Some companies considering acquiring the film have asked to pull back from the worst of the violence. Visceral audience reaction like this could limit the stateside commercial potential for this elegantly made $13-million 35 mm movie, which was funded by a Canadian investor and foreign sales company Wild Bunch. Icon is set to open the UK in May.
UPDATE: IFC has acquired stateside rights to the film, which reminds some of the controversy surrounding another film about a serial killer, Nick Broomfield's doc Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.