A lot of noir books and films show violence as something which is entertaining. What I liked about Jim Thompson’s books is that, though very much in the pulp fiction genre, he doesn’t use the violence as entertainment—there is something shocking about the violence. For me that was the point of the violence in the film in a way—it is something very repulsive. In terms of how we depicted it, we were just trying to make it as close to the book as possible. The book is very shocking.
This is true enough in principle, that movie violence should be disturbing because real violence is, but once it’s safely ferried his film past the quite simpleminded accusations that a film which depicts violence against women is misogynist, QED, Winterbottom’s argument quickly runs out of steam. Believe it or not, there are ways of depicting that which is repulsive that are more complex than a scrupulous point-by-point reconstruction of said repulsiveness.
Violence is disturbing so movie violence should be disturbing, too—but, then, movie violence has been disturbing for quite some time.
Take a look at The Proposition, from 2005, a revisionist Western—that is, skeptical national creation myth—which boldly suggests that our society was born of savagery by… emphasizing as much as possible the brutal ickiness of its head-caving, wound-seeping violence. (That a thematically key scene consists of a flogging of a dead man—with numerous close-up of a whip thwacking against thick, blood-clotted corpseflesh—is telling in ways surely unintended.) It’s ugly and obvious—ugly because obvious, ugly because it wants to hammer home a proposition (sorry) that’s been evident in the Western genre for quite some time, and has no ideas except to tell us what we already know, in a louder voice. This is basically how The Killer Inside Me handles violence against women.
(There’s an argument that we’ve become desensitized, and require ever more extravagantly realistic and cruel violence to resensitize us to the horror of what we’re seeing. Aside from giving too little credit to the audacity of our prior generations, this would seem to imply that we’ll eventually become desensitized to these new fresh wounds, too, eventually, need a greater jolt next time, until we’re stifling yawns during snuff films.)
Watching the above-linked Wild Bunch opening shootout again, though, reminded me how straight-up gorgeous that sequence is—the rising tension, the bodies falling in slo-mo, the rhythm of the cutting—alongside its brutality, like some sort of psychic collision montage.
Someone who handles this collision pretty well is David Cronenberg, whose A History of Violence—in portraying a homesteader fending off black-hatted outsiders, it feels like a Western; in questioning the righteousness of his rough justice, it feels like a revisionist Western—draws out genuinely complex feelings about its anatomically specific visceral violence. Because another thing that’s true about explicit movie violence—and a thing Cronenberg knows and exploits, often with morally complicated role-reversing narrative structures a la History—is that no matter how disturbing the movie violence is, there’s always somebody getting off.
Remember the naked knife fight in Eastern Promises? (Course you do.) Did you laugh, gasp, cringe, or cheer? What should you have done? I’m not entirely sure what the appropriate reaction would have been—but I’ve seen all of them. This is why maybe those charges of misogyny leveled against Winterbottom and his film are more serious than they seem: despite his rather logical defense, there’s surely someone out there who found it thrilling. Simply making it “shocking” won’t cut it—neither does the movie’s canned flashbacks, which attempt to frame the perpetrator of the violence as aberrant through easy-answer psychological a-ha!s.
To really make the point about violence against women that he thinks he’s making, Winterbottom maybe needed to use a little less frontal battery and a little more jiu-jitsu—the skimming s&m sex montages that precede the movie’s fatal beatings feel perfunctory in comparison to the genuinely multileveled rape games (or are they?) in History of Violence, or Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, which acknowledge the potential for both turn-on and authentic trauma—for the participants, and for us. Winterbottom’s movie is too much “killer” and too little “inside me.”