(2010) dir. Michael Winterbottom
Jim Thompson is one of the most fascinating writers to have ever emerged from America’s pulp fiction landscape. A true modernist, draped in the crime genre, Thompson was miles ahead of and beyond most anyone else. And his deep-seeded darkness, penchant for weirdness, and powerful stories are among my favorite fictional writings. And while some of it perhaps lends itself more easily for adaptation, other works fall into the realm of near impossibility. And that’s not to say that they are so far-fetched, but simply to capture exactly the black spirit, black comedy, and ruthlessness has just been one rare thing.
Adapted from the classic 1952 pulp novel The Killer Inside Me, director Michael Winterbottom’s latest film is the latest stab at taking one of Thompson’s most seminal works and translating it into cinema. There had been an attempt before, a pretty atrocious attempt, by Burt Kennedy in 1976 starring Stacy Keach. I’ve nearly completely blotted that abortion from my mind, now only left with the scars, not much memory of it per se.
Thompson’s work has been most effectively filmed by Stephen Frears. His 1990 film of The Grifters starring Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annett Bening, while it’s been a long while since I’ve seen it, I recall thinking was a deft and true adaptation. I also recall liking James Foley’s adaptation, also from 1990, of After Dark, My Sweet, starring Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, and Bruce Dern. Now my memories of these films are now quite old themselves, so perhaps I need to revisit them.
More recently, I’d watched Coup de torchon (1981) (adpated from Thompson’s novel Pop. 1280) and also Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Thompson’s brilliant The Getaway (1972). But even in Peckinpah’s rather dirty and blood-soaked fingers, Thompson’s work didn’t find it’s way to the fore. But still, I perservere here, hoping.
I liked the casting of Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the small Texas town deputry sherriff with an increasing number of dark secrets to cover up, a growing body count, and a mania that is spinning, spinning, spinning. I’d really liked Affelck in Andrew Dominick’s amazing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and in big brother Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), and thought that this was quite a casting coup. For the female roles, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, I was a little more dubious. And as for Michael Winterbottom, I should have been most dubious.
Winterbottom, an English filmmaker of middling quality, actually is often attracted to a number of interesting scripts and ideas. I haven’t seen by any means all of his films, but that he adapted a version of Thomas Hardy’s Jude, I find intriguing, that he made a movie about the Manchester, England music scene 24 Hour Party People (2002) I found interesting, I also watched his Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and had previously seen his first feature film, Butterfly Kiss (1995). That he’d adapted Hardy again in The Claim (2000) also interested me. I find that he’s drawn to movie ideas that intrigue me.
Only, his movies aren’t all that great.
Now, my intention had been to re-read the novel before seeing this new version of the movie, but I didn’t get around to it, and when I saw that it was being played on On Demand before it even hit San Francisco movie theaters, I decided to give it a go. And since it’s been such a long while since I have read the book, I couldn’t quibble over little interpretive aspects.
Affleck, though, seems wrong. The killer is inside a soft-spoken, nearly effeminate-voiced Lou Ford, who while seeing the world as his rapidly-decaying oyster also likes to stun others with his pretense of stupidity, while internally thinking he’s smarter than everyone else. Or at least that is sort of how I recall the character. Here, he’s a bit on the sympathetic side, with some weird references to child abuse and abandonment, and he’s loving to both the woman who would be his wife (Hudson) and the whore with whom he has love and lust (Alba). That is, when he’s not bruising them or beating them to death or near-death.
The whole thing just feeling kind of wrong. Like it doesn’t gibe. And I’m not sure if that is my expectations talking or just purely my reaction.
One thing I did like a lot was the soundtrack. Great period music that I’d love to listen to on a jukebox.
But the film, which has gotten mostly negative criticism from what I’ve read, also with a focus on the film’s violence, which I think is a bit of an over-wrought reaction, it’s not what it could be. And I think, perhaps, that even Affleck is not necessarily miscast but just goes the wrong way with this whole thing. And one of the key elements missing, I think, is Thompson’s ruthlessly black humor. Part of the character’s meanness and madness plays out in some comic perspectives on the world and the people around him. Affleck’s version of Ford is an almost sympathetic fatalist, doomed to be the way he is and to bring those down around him. What made Thompson’s character frightening, his burning drive and internal chaos and cruelty, are almost apologized for in this film.
Frankly, I would have to re-read the novel to give it a better estimation. It’s not that an adaptation needs to be true to a novel, though often that is what is expected. But when a direction is taken that seems to rob the story of its core elements, its core character, one has to wonder… And I will wonder. I do wonder.