07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Killer Inside Me : Can Battering Women Be Entertainment?

First a disclaimer: I'm a great fan of the mercurial filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. I admire his hunger to reinvent himself by biting into a broad range of genres. High points from his oeuvre include Jude, a haunting adaptation of Thomas Hardy (who can forget Kate Winslet as poor Sue Bridehead lying naked on the bed, trying to feel sexual?); In This World, a faux documentary about Afghan refugees; Code 46, a sci fi love story; A Mighty Heart, from Mariane Pearl's memoir; and the shag-a-thon that was Nine Days. Is there anything the man won't try?

Now, with The Killer Inside, Me, Winterbottom attempts a noir thriller. It's adapted from the cult novel by 50's pulp writer Jim Thompson (The Grifters), who specialized in tales of homicidal sickos. Because of the violence visited upon female characters the film caused a fracas earlier this year at Sundance, where viewers called it irresponsible. Jessica Alba, whose character gets battered, reportedly left the theater mid-way through.

During a packed screening last week at the Tribeca Film Festival everyone sat tight, mainly disturbed that the film started roughly an hour late because the stars -- Alba, Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson -- were working the red carpet and the paparazzi were doubtless discussing such world-shaking matters as Hudson's presumed boob job. But that New Yorkers remained unflappable says more about us than about this shocker that foregrounds violence towards women.

Set in a Texas oil town in the 1950's, Killer is narrated by Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a handsome, small town sheriff who appears amiable in a dim, aw-shucks-ma'am way. Yet under his becoming Stetson, Ford is a cunning madman -- with abuse issues in his past -- fighting a near-constant urge to inflict violence, which he describes as "the sickness."

In the way of a plot -- turgid and tough to follow -- Ford visits the house of a prostitute with orders to run her out of town. Instead he yanks off her pants and whips her repeatedly on the butt with his belt. In the world of Jim Thompson women apparently find this irresistible -- or maybe it's some Texan thing. The two become lovers, teaming up to double cross a third lover who has wronged Ford in the past. But Ford double crosses the girl, smashing her to a pulp while telling her, I love you. From that point on he plays cat and mouse with the law -- and with his supposed fiancee (Kate Hudson) -- unleashing mayhem according to some inner clock, till he's nabbed in a hellacious ending

Buoyed by a superb cast, Killer is filmed with impeccable style, the big bright spaces of a Texas oil town playing against the noir theme. With his snub nose, baby-face, and polite demeanor, Affleck is astonishingly good as Ford. The film is built, in a sense, around Affleck's voice: a husky, androgynous mumble, more interior than spoken, terrifying in its ordinariness. Stanley Kubrick called Jim Thompson's Killer "probably the most chilling and believable first person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered," and Affleck has nailed it. That he's so charismatic places viewers in the uncomfortable position of somewhat rooting for a maniac.

My first objection to the film is aesthetic. Though I haven't read Jim Thompson's novel, my guess is that the violence works better in print and is probably less of an assault than on screen. Print leaves the reader some leeway in what he conjures up. Also, Thompson was a stylist noted for his adroit use of an unreliable narrator. This raises the possibility that the battering in Killer may even have been semi-hallucinated by Ford. On screen, though, it's flat-out literal, visceral, and nothing you want to watch.

Worse, the violence in Killer is monotonous. I mean, after one left hook to Alba's eyeball, we kinda get the point about Ford, do we need to see more? The complete disassembling of a face from soup to nuts?

My second objection is more philosophical. Winterbottom answers complaints about the film's graphic violence by arguing that he's merely attempted a faithful rendering of Thompson's blacker than noir universe. In the press notes he cites the film's Shakespearean spin, since Ford goes around destroying people he loves (apart from the hubris of invoking the Bard, let's add that much of Shakespeare's bloodshed occurs offstage). The filmmaker has also observed in an interview that Ford harbors in extreme form flaws shared by everyone.

Uh, excuse me. Maybe we're all walking around with little killers inside. But there's a giant disconnect between that and the images and sounds in Killer of a man beating a woman till she's dead.

Filmmakers are of course free to ignore p.c. issues and to push the envelop. Yet I came away from Killer with the disquieting sense that they now need to up the ante and lay on the shock and schlock A) to find distribution; and B) to get any attention at all from a public craving ever stronger fixes of violence. Even Shrek Forever After, which opened Tribeca, offers the kiddies repugnant images of the ogre in neck shackles.

P.S. I'm looking forward to the season's second shocker from Winterbottom, who lends new meaning to "prolific." It's called The Shock Doctrine, based on the expose by Naomi Klein about how America's free-market policies have come to dominate the world.