The Killer Inside Me

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

15 November

The Clutter family murder, 1959

On this day in 1959, ex-prisoners Dick Hickock and Perry Smith killed wealthy farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife and his two teenage children in their remote farmhouse home in Holcomb, Kansas. Acting on information gleaned from a cellmate while inside, Hickock believed that Clutter kept a safe full of cash at his house and that he would easily be able to get his hands on it, abscond and start a new life in Mexico with the money. Clutter, a solid methodist, a conscientious family man and well-liked employer who paid his workers above the going rate, did not in fact keep any money at the farm, and did not even own a safe. Hickock had picked up Smith en route as wingman, and on the night in question the duo broke into the isolated house and roused the family from their beds. On learning that there was no safe, no money, it is believed that the probably psychopathic Smith murdered all four members of the family. The two fled the murder scene but were picked up in Las Vegas six weeks later. Smith claimed in his police interviews that Hickock had murdered two of the Clutters, though when it came to signing the confession Smith said wanted to accept responsibility for all four as a kind of favour to Hickock’s mother, who had been kind to him. The writer Truman Capote read a short report on the murders in the New York Times and decided to investigate, turning the results of his lengthy investigations (conducted along with Harper Lee, later of To Kill a Mockingbird) into his celebrated work In Cold Blood, which is often cited as the original non-fiction novel, a landmark piece of what has since been called New Journalism.

The Killer Inside Me (2010, dir: Michael Winterbottom)

Capote’s In Cold Blood examined a psychopathic murder in chilling detail, from set-up to payback on the end of a hangman’s rope. Jim Thompson’s original 1952 novel takes a similar path, except that instead of working his way from the facts back to the men, as Capote did, Thompson is inside the killer’s head looking out at the mayhem. Michael Winterbottom’s film cannot, of course, situate itself inside someone’s head, so instead has to rely on an actor who can suggest inner mental life without going down the Vincent Price route. In Casey Affleck Winterbottom has his man, an intelligent actor willing to take on roles that more conventional stars would run a mile from. After The Killing of Jesse James etc etc, this was Affleck’s second “coward” role, as Lou Ward, the smalltown deputy sheriff in 1950s Texas who kills because “I had to destroy them”, as the lurid tag line on the cover of the original Thompson novel put it. Winterbottom understands that to live up to Thompson’s brutal original, he’s going to have to include some shocking stuff. Hence the much discussed ugly nasty murder of Joyce Lakeland, a “hustling lady” played by lovely Jessica Alba, whom Ward has been ordered to go see and warn off a local bigwig’s son. It is horrible, gruesome, through-the-fingers stuff, but then this is murder we’re talking about; it’s not meant to be nice. The sexual stuff, too, is dark meat – Ward’s girlfriend (Kate Hudson) giving him a blowjob and tasting Joyce’s vagina on him – a moment that leads to more ugly unpleasantness. Affleck is the smiling killer par excellence, his light high voice the antithesis of the Clint Eastwood growl the most of Hollywood favours – and Winterbottom pairs it beautifully with Hank Williams on the soundtrack, singing songs of love and loss that hint at what has so disturbed this man. If you haven’t seen the film you might be surprised to hear that it is in fact, atrocity aside, a work of quiet restraint, of beautiful interiors, gorgeous clothes, elegant cars. Which makes Winterbottom’s choice of finish all the more surprising and welcome, funny even, in a rasping kind of way.

Why Watch?

  • A film about a psychopath that doesn’t prettify or condone
  • The original book is a pulp classic
  • Jessica Alba as a cheap prostitute – so unlikely it’s funny
  • Richard Redlefsen’s gruesome “beat-up” make-up for Jessica Alba

The Killer Inside Me – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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