It’s taken more than half a century for someone to successfully transform Jim Thompson’s hyper-violent noir classic, The Killer Inside Me, into a feature film, which raises the question: Why are we now ready to watch Jessica Alba’s face get beaten beyond all recognition?
Stanley Kubrick, no stranger to the blood-soaked hallways of the human psyche, once called Jim Thompson’s noir shocker, The Killer Inside Me, “the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” Published in 1952, the novel became a crime genre cult classic, entering the cultural milieu as a delicately vicious piece of Americana packed with voyeuristic kicks.
Now, after an arduous, decades-long trek from the printed page, The Killer Inside Me finally gets the big screen treatment it deserves. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, the film stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a murderous Texas sheriff ’s deputy, Kate Hudson as Amy Stanton, his ill-fated girlfriend, and Jessica Alba as Joyce Lakeland, his equally ill-fated mistress. The film has already provoked intense reactions, most notably from audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, many of whom objected to its graphic depictions of violence against women, which forms the disquieting core of both the novel and the movie. The movie-going public will either soak up its chilling portrait of a twisted lawman, or recoil in disgust.
The incredible brutality of the film, jarring because it exists at the intersection of a Larry Holmes fight and a Revlon commercial, readily accounts for its long path toward adaptation. Within the first 10 pages of the book, the presumably law-abiding Lou, all low-key Southern charm, goes on a routine call to the home of local prostitute Joyce Lakeland. Once inside, the following transpires: “[I] jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them. I took off my belt and raised it over my head… ” The ellipsis is Lou’s, who revels in the orgasmic sadism—personal and perpetrated upon the trusting soul—to come. On screen, all ellipses are filled in and Joyce becomes tinder for Lou’s reignited “sickness.” After he finishes with her, Alba looks like freshly ground USDA Prime. The close-up camerawork places us inside the brutality; the nuanced nature of Affleck’s performance, often in serene voice-overs, communicates the fragility of Lou’s internal state. Tension is built and ratcheted up as his “No sirs” and “Yes, ma’ams”—and victims—multiply. But why are we watching this madness? What is wrong with us?
Torrential violence aside, The Killer Inside Me has become infamous for the number of times dream casts were assembled, and then dismantled, as productions fell apart. Only one of those many adaptations, the first of which began 10 years after the book’s publication, came to anything: a 1976 rendition starring Stacy Keach, of all people, in the leading role. That version, laughable and ham-fisted, has since been exiled to the VHS bins. What this new one proves is that casting and timing are everything. The film’s production company, Muse, spent 14 years developing the script, presumably waiting for a moment when the stars—to say nothing of the director, money and cultural appetites—were aligned. It is a collection of elements that has bedeviled the adaptations of other literary classics, most notably, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye and A Confederacy of Dunces. Good luck, Infinite Jest.
But The Killer Inside Me is not The Catcher in the Rye. As a nation, we did not wait breathlessly for the silver-screen vision of Thompson’s maniacal deputy sheriff. Even Winterbottom and his longtime producing partner, Andrew Eaton, came across it by accident. The pair was looking for something by another mid-century noir novelist, David Goodis, who wrote Dark Passage. Once they started working on the adaptation, Eaton says, “Michael and I got to the point of no return.”
No return from what, exactly? In many respects, The Killer Inside Me should have been a no-brainer. Thompson’s books have long provided the raw material for bracingly perverse and successful films, such as the 1972 Steve McQueen–Ali MacGraw romantic crucible, The Getaway, and Stephen Frears’ 1990 film The Grifters, which earned four Oscar nominations, one of them for Donald E. Westlake, who adapted the screenplay. With a cult pedigree, scads of A-list interest, lots of juicy parts and dialogue lifted right off the page of a poetic, surreal and highly intelligent work, Killer might have, could have and goddamn well should have been turned into a movie more than 50 years ago. Instead, it arrives this June, in the words of its chilling protagonist, “like a wind had been turned on a dying fire.”
Thompson’s crime novel was originally optioned as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, who was meant to play Joyce, the sweet yet complex call girl. The starry cast was to be rounded out by Marlon Brando as Lou and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy. There was also a mid-’80s version with proposed stars Tom Cruise, Brooke Shields and Demi Moore. In the mid-’90s, a post-Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino was rumored to be corralling Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis and Uma Thurman for his re-imagining. In 2003, Andrew Dominik, who directed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, also starring Casey Affeck, conceived of a cast that included Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron and Drew Barrymore. There were even more recent rumblings that Maggie Gyllenhaal would play Joyce, with Reese Witherspoon as Amy, the part that eventually went to Kate Hudson, who embodies the character with surprising maturity.
But to look at the original dream team of Monroe, Brando and Taylor—and each of the subsequent proposed rosters—one wonders what took this thing so long to get legs. “There are a number of moving parts that have to come together in any movie to make it good,” says Alba, when asked about the process of bringing the film to life. Indeed, one of the most critical moving parts is casting. “The three actors that we cast were amazing,” attests Eaton. “If any one of them had stepped away, I think the whole thing would have collapsed.” Casting exits have felled many an attempted film adaptation, and The Killer Inside Me is no exception: the first big-screen treatment was shelved when Monroe died suddenly, in 1962. For Winterbottom’s adaptation, the cast was firm, committed and compelled by the text. “I fell in love with the book, as dark and twisted as it is, and that was my primary reason for doing the film,” Alba says. “I was also excited about working with Casey Affeck.”
Affeck’s voice is the heart of the film. Voice leads to character, character leads to action and, in the case of The Killer Inside Me, all three led to Affeck, a slender man with a speaking voice as fragile as fresh pie crust. The match between the first-person voice of the novel and Affeck’s tenderly inflected Texas accent, via his almost flute-y register, creates sonic harmony. Brando might have pulled it off, but his was not a climate that could have depicted the novel’s sadistic savagery as graphically as Winterbottom’s production does.
For purists, this version of The Killer Inside Me is a lesson in faithfulness to text. Because the novel reads like a screenplay, it doesn’t take a censor to understand why earlier adaptations couldn’t have been honest re-creations of the novel: Before the ’70s, any director under the aegis of a studio would have likely had to excise or defuse much of the novel’s graphic language and violent images. Take, for instance, one especially grueling scene in which Lou has Joyce reined like an attack dog, yanking her around by a collar he’s fashioned out of a thick belt. This is not popcorn-movie material that goes down easy with an ice-cold soda.
At Sundance this year, Robert Redford commented to Eaton that America has trouble dealing with brutality. But, in truth, we are a violence-obsessed culture, and our movies externalize that aggressive instinct. Kill Bill, anyone? Scarface? Natural Born Killers? Every Halloween-season release for the past 40 years? But what makes The Killer Inside Me so uncomfortable to watch is the personal nature of the violence. We are inured to raging death machines, but having to watch someone’s face get pounded by the knuckles of their lover closes the distance between fiction and fact. Banal violence is often much more frightening than its operatic equivalent. In any case, it is not surprising that what was once underground in the form of a 1950s pulp novel is now decidedly above ground in our post-Tarantino, post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan era.
Given the book’s savagery and the tortured history of its adaptation, Winterbottom and Eaton aren’t exactly sure why their version got off the ground. Maybe it was simply the right time. Or perhaps all that former star wattage was too overpowering for what the text could bear. If we can solve this mystery, there’s a MacArthur genius grant to be had for the person who figures out why Jack Kerouac’s beat manifesto, On the Road, has not yet been transformed into a movie.
I remember going to a casting call for that lm in New York City in the early ’90s. It was a snowy day. For what seemed like endless blocks, the actors lining up outside the studio had their thumbs slung into their chino pockets, posing like the perfect Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, turning Kerouac into a verb. Seated at a table was the then-attached director, Francis Ford Coppola. It seemed as if the wheels were truly in motion. The coolest book, the novel people most dreamed of living, was about to be envisioned for the screen. And by a Hollywood demi-god, no less! Cue the hard bop music. Shoplift a candy bar. Fall for a girl who will come along with you. And then… nothing for nearly 20 years.
Until now. The Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles is reportedly bringing the book to life. It is the right time. Just like marriage. We were simply waiting for the perfect person to show up.