Michael Winterbottom is a fast talker. Which seems in character — he’s also a quick, prolific filmmaker, tirelessly turning out a movie a year in genres ranging wide, from meta-literary adaptation “A Cock and Bull Story” to hardcore romance “9 Songs” to 2008’s Colin Firth-led family drama “Genova,” still without a distributor. His newest — for now — is “The Killer Inside Me,” itself one of two films (along with Naomi Klein-based documentary “The Shock Doctrine”) he had showing at Sundance this year.
It can be hard to imagine people getting incensed about on-screen violence in our hardened times, but “The Killer Inside Me” has the dubious distinction of managing just that. Adapted from a Jim Thompson novel, the film’s an exhilarating, nihilistic kick-to-the-teeth of a noir tale with a star-filled cast, centered on and narrated by small-town sheriff Lou Ford (played by Casey Affleck) whose explosive affair with local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) brings out a hidden dark streak a few miles wide.
A scene in which a woman is savagely, graphically beaten has made the film a hotly discussed point of controversy since that first Park City screening, during which there were reportedly more than a few walk-outs. I got a chance to talk with Winterbottom before the film played at the Tribeca Film Festival, where, perhaps better warned, the audience mostly stayed put. [SPOILERS follow]
Jim Thompson is one of those writers people tend to say is very difficult to put on screen. Do you agree? Did you have any sense of that before going in to this adaptation?
When I read “Killer Inside Me” — and I think it’s a great book — what interested me was that you could actually make the film as literal as possible. You could almost use the book as a script. So in that sense, it wasn’t difficult. The plot kicks in right at the beginning, about five pages [in].
Lou Ford has met Joyce Lakeland. He’s hit by her, hits her back, has sex with her, falls in love with her. It’s a good, fast start to the story, and Thompson keeps that pace going all the way through, and also writes great dialogue. So actually, one of the attractions of Jim Thompson was that it seemed easy to make a film of his book.
We’re told by Lou how he’s perceived by the town, but from our perspective, he takes a dive into the dark side, as you say, very quickly. How internal is the film supposed to be?
It’s difficult. When you read the book, obviously it’s Lou Ford telling the story, and as it goes on, you become more and more aware of how unreliable a narrator he is. We tried to keep that element in the film, so it starts off with his voiceover. You’re aware that this is Lou’s point of view. He’s in every scene — you never really see what’s going on when he’s not there, so that reinforces that it’s his version of what happened.
Film obviously feels more objective than a book does. You’re less aware of the unreliable nature of what you’re seeing in a film. Within the film, there are a few moments, like Lou looking to camera, where we try to give a slightly uneasy possibility about him and his awareness of this being a story.
I wanted to keep the idea that this is a fiction, very closely based on a book that has a lot of fictional elements to it. And this is a story being told within that book, by someone who’s not necessarily telling absolutely the truth. I hope people see this as Lou’s version of the story, but I didn’t want to push it to the extent to which it’s a post-modern “it’s all a story, it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to worry about it.”
You’ve made films that play with unreliable narrators and levels of storytelling before, and I didn’t feel this was in that realm — but at the same time, it’s so rich with noir tropes, noir characters, that there does seem to be a sense of remove, of occasional air quotes, maybe?
By the end of the book, when it all goes into flames, you’re very aware that the person telling you the story is dead — that is a noir convention. But, especially in the book, you feel [all along] you’re going to get some outside perspective on Lou, or realize this is where Lou is now and he’s repented, he’s writing this from his cell… Instead it just keeps going and going. One of the great things about the ending is you’re expecting it to come to some other sort of conclusion and he just carries on and does even bigger things.
There’s also a wish fulfillment element about the end — he wants to be caught, he wants to die, he wants to bring everyone down with him. Setting fire to his dad’s house is symbolically cathartic because he’s been living in the shadow of his dad, the pillar of the community.
So there’s a sense that it’s a fantasy ending, but it’s not as though there’s a real story that’s different from that. I did an adaptation of “Tristram Shandy” which was very playful — I didn’t want to do that again. In this case, I wanted to be as literal and straightforward and unplayful as possible in terms of trying to just film the book.