Smooth Criminal

By Smith, Damon | Filmmaker, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Smooth Criminal


Smith, Damon, Filmmaker


As a filmmaker, British writer-director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, In This World, A Mighty Heart) doesn't linger long in one place. Just consider the globe-hopping locations he shoots in (Scotland, Pakistan, Iran, Shanghai), the hyperkinetic pace at which he works (there have been 18 features since 1995), and the versatility of his films, which cover every conceivable genre from sultry neo-noir and dolorous period drama to near-future sci-fi and Gold Rush-era Western. But the restlessness extends to his personality as well. In conversation, Winterbottom is so voluble that he can be hard to decipher, the words spilling out miles ahead of his own thought process. He is, to be sure, an artist in perpetual motion.

It's late August, and Winterbottom has just completed principal photography in Guthrie, Okla., on The Killer Inside Me, adapted from the 1952 cult crime thriller by American pulp writer Jim Thompson (The Grifters, The Getaway). The novel tells the story of a seemingly mild-mannered deputy sheriff in West Texas, Lou Ford (played in the film by Casey Affleck), who is gradually revealed to be a deranged personality bent on sexual violence and murder. Thompson's key innovation in the book was his clever, insidious use of first-person narration, through which we come to understand Lou's grotesque logic and self-estranged state of mind. Jessica Alba is Joyce Lakeland, the prostitute who willingly succumbs to the young peace officer's kinky, sadistic charms, and Kate Hudson appears as Amy Stanton, Lou's adoring, well-bred girlfriend. Like the townsfolk in Central City, she remains clueless about his homicidal proclivities - "the sickness," Lou calls it - until, of course, it's too late.

"There's something about the way Lou narrates his own story that makes you feel sort of close to him," says Winterbottom, on the phone from the London offices of Revolution Films, where he has just begun editing footage with longtime producing partner Andrew Eaton. "You feel as well that's something going to happen to redeem him. And what's brilliant about the way Jim Thompson tells the story is you're constantly feeling that you're going to come to this moment of knowledge - and then the book ends. [laughs]" Many, of course, regard Killer as Thompson's masterpiece, both for its tawdry Oedipal twist on psychopathology - repressed memories of sexual abuse figure prominently in Lou's confessional monologue - and its cunning inversion of oafish, country-bumpkin mannerisms. Even Stanley Kubrick, for whom Thompson penned The Killing and Paths of Glory (largely uncredited), called it "probably the most chilling and believeable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered."

But for Winterbottom, there's a Shakespearean dimension to the story too, and he was keen to draw out the tragic human subtext of Ford's wicked impulses. "There are stories about people who seem to live normal lives, love their children and wives, and then they decide to destroy everything, to tear everything up," he says. "Lou is that sort of character. The people who he kills are quite close to him; people love him despite the fact that he's been violent towards them. There are psychological explanations in the book, but it's more the sense of the pointlessness and waste that violence creates, and the tenderness of the situation that attracted me." In that sense, he agrees, the film echoes Butterfly Kiss, Winterbottom's 1995 road movie about itinerant lesbian lovers whose serial-killing spree, while horrific, never eclipses our sympathy for them: "There are many elements of a love story we're trying to make with The Killer Inside Me. …

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