The song He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss) sums up all Jim Thompson’s oeuvre. When he wrote his novels (mostly in the 50s) they were rightly regarded as violent misogynist twaddle. It was only after his death that certain misguided critics mistook his nihilistic, bad-day-at-the-abattoir style for art. Thompson’s writing has all the literary merit of pissing your name in snow. Like Mickey Spillane, he saw two kinds of people in the world: bad men and the women who love them. The mistake director Michael Winterbottom makes (in his new adaptation of The Killer Inside Me) is to believe Thompson’s world view teaches us anything apart from bad taste.
In a dusty, nowhere little town in Texas, a young sheriff likes to beat women. He was raised to be bad, by his no-good daddy and his paedophile half-brother. Even his baby-sitter was a sadomasochist. Now, cloaked by his badge of office and spurred-on by legal impunity, he plots the death of a rich boy who man-slaughtered his sibling. Since we’re in Jim Thompson-country, he can’t just kill the rich boy, of course. He must kill a few chicks along the way (because he’s bad and women want him, badly). He’s got two women in his life: a good girl and a whore (one girl, if you read Freud). They both worship him enough to inspire hate, and to turn him on to murder.
I shut my eyes when Casey Affleck beat Jessica Alba to death. Even listening for a minute was tough. This scene, which has stirred the critical backlash against the movie, is true to Jim Thompson’s lurid vision, but watching it doesn’t tell us much. In interviews, Michael Winterbottom has argued that ultra-violence is moral, because it’s unattractive to most people. The trouble is: it’s only unattractive to moral people. (Wife-beaters love watching women get punched in the face.) Does Winterbottom think we’re under some illusion about what beating a woman to death looks like? Jim Thompson wasn’t a feminist, for Pete’s sake. He wrote what he wrote because lurid violence sells. His work only seems insightful because psychos have so few thoughts. Pity the man who wants to see women battered.
As the sheriff, Casey Affleck has a coward’s smile. His signature look – like Ben Affleck if he’d killed somebody – is used to good effect here. He’s got eyes that seem to die on people. His voice is permanently curled into his throat, waiting to be kicked. Everything about him is wounded. Unfortunate women think he’s “vulnerable”. Men mistake him for a servant. But both ways of seeing him look like weakness from his point of view. His wounds aren’t there to be healed, or to be used against him. He’s long past that. His wounds are, in fact, the only reminder there is that he was once a child. For him, feelings are what he fakes, the way a hunter baits a trap.
There’s no such complexity to the women’s roles. (The old action movie maxim: “Any woman is superfluous to the plot unless naked or dead” was probably invented by Jim Thompson.) Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson do their best, but their roles are pretty much confined to the bedroom (or the grave). They are the women who’d sing He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss). Every woman in Jim Thompson’s fiction has a taste for male dominance and bloodshed disguised as sex. The only difference between a murder scene and a sex scene for Thompson is that his killers actually enjoy murder. Sex might be hot for these guys, but it’s always foreplay to death.
There is an audience for this kind of thing. In the 50s – hell, for most of human history – men wrote violent misogynist twaddle, and people lapped it up. As in rap lyrics today, there’s a supposed authenticity in boy-on-girl spite. But woman-haters are all liars. And not even interesting liars at that. Misogyny is the thinnest veil for self-doubt. Women are everywhere, after all. How big a man’s fears have to be to encompass an entire sex! (So big they dwarf him.) The makers of The Killer Inside Me know their anti-hero is a personality void, so they accentuate violence, like real misogynists. This can’t hide the littleness of the man, or how empty the movie is.