Sundance audience shaken by brutal "Killer"

January 25, 2021
By Jay A. Fernandez
Hollywood Reporter

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Let's get this out of the way up front: In Michael Winterbottom's "The Killer Inside Me," Jessica Alba is pulverized, fist to face, fist to face, fist to poor pretty face, by Casey Affleck for a good three minutes or so. Until her eyes are swollen shut and part of her face has been smashed away, exposing her jaw. What one character later describes as "hamburger," "stewed meat."

It's ultra-real, excruciating to watch and, in some viewers' minds, inexcusable.

When Affleck's sociopathic deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, does something similar to Kate Hudson's character later in the nihilistic noir, Winterbottom and crew lost even more of the audience. Not that they walked out of Sunday's premiere screening, mind you. They waited until the moment the lights came up for a Q&A with the filmmakers, and Winterbottom started fielding vehement criticism about the violence toward women.

First question: "Disgusting!" yelled a woman as she got up and stormed up the aisle.

Winterbottom, after a long pause: "Next question?"

Whether the film, a period noir about a West Texas deputy sheriff with dangerous sexual issues adapted from Jim Thompson's classic 1952 novel, has any theatrical prospects turns out to be less interesting than the perennial debate the film sparks about art vs. exploitation when it comes to violence in cinema.

Does the violence work in the context of a deeper exploration of a character's psyche, or that of society as a whole? Or is it displayed in a vacuum without any redeeming context to provide meaning to a viewer other than an indictment of their being willing to sit through it in the first place?

Try the latter. A wildly improbable and over-the-top finale pushes the film into something more like black comedy, which in turn undercuts the purported realism of the violence earlier in the movie.

Audience members repeatedly prodded Winterbottom to provide some greater meaning or backstory that would help them accept what they had just suffered through. The director protested that, as in Thompson's novel, he wanted to explore the noir theme of "a sense of pleasure in the violence. The violence should be shocking."

Mission accomplished.