In the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, following a series of film adaptations of novels by Jim Thompson that helped rehabilitate his reputation, I became deeply interested in his work and read about eight or nine of his novels, pretty much one after the other.
They were a revelation, not just the terseness and electricity of the prose, but the lyrical description of character and the intensely evocative mood and peculiar milieu he sketched with a rabid flurry and formal command.
Personally I thought his strongest works were The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet, The Getaway and Pop. 1280. His masterpiece, his gravest and most chilling work, was The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952.It's one of the most unflinching and terrifying first-person novels I've ever read. It balances the nihilism of The Getaway with the treachery and murderous rage of Pop. 1280. In that work, the small town sheriff turns vigilante not only to eliminate the criminal underworld but also achieve redemption against those who mocked and vilified him.
In The Killer Inside Me, the implacable, fiendish Lou Ford, the small town West Texas sheriff whose destructive rage literally annihilates everyone that comes into his path, denotes the unfathomable, but it‘s the lack of affect, the clearness of mind, the soundness of his reason, that is so appalling and brutal.
The French were always way ahead of us on Thompson, just as they were on David Goodis and other American crime specialists. Foreign directors have turned out the strongest Thompson adaptations: Bertrand Tavernier (whose Coup de torchon brilliantly transplants the action of Pop. 1280 to French colonial West Africa), Alain Corneau (his Serie noire is a terrific adaptation of A Hell of a Woman), Stephen Frears' The Grifters (featuring Annette Benning's greatest performance ever). The only American director whose work approaches those is James Foley's superb After Dark, My Sweet.
Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of The Killer Inside Me detonated at the Eccles Theater in Park City Sunday night. The festival's advertising sloganeering has been pushing the notion of "rebelling," or "revolution," to outrageous lengths; here finally was a film that violated the general smoothness of Sundance and the movie was more or less pummeled by the paying crowd and "sponsors," the festival goes out of their way to appease.
It's unflinching and brutal, featuring two extended sequences of women being beaten to a pulp. I'm still putting together a formal review, but my general impression is favorable, with some fairly major qualms.
Winterbottom is prolific; I've said this elsewhere but he's he kind of competent and versatile craftsman who's neither never going to make a great film nor ever make a wholly uninteresting one. His films are wildly uneven. The French sales agent Wild Bunch is apparently the primary financier on the film (which is going to have its international premiere at Berlin next month).
I was favorably impressed by Casey Affleck's work in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He's very good here, and so is Jessica Alba, playing the crucial role of the prostitute who sets the deputy's nefarious plot in motion.
Frears' adaptation of The Grifters (shot by the excellent Oliver Stapleton) offered one of the most pungent visual reproduction of fifties Los Angeles I've ever seen. Likewise, the Danish-born Marcel Zyskind achieves some beautiful work with the flat landscapes in the new adaptation of Killer.
Yesterday, I also caught Howl, an interesting though also perplexing analysis of the social, cultural and personal impact of Allen Ginsberg's landmark poem. It held my attention, but I'm not sure that it's really cinema. It's more of an essay film that draws on different forms, animation, period recreation, direct address interview, somewhat in the manner of Todd Haynes' I'm Not There (the great Ed Lachman shot both films). I have more about it here.
Before the Winterbottom, I sat in the balcony for the premiere of The Runaways, video artist Floria Sigismondi's debut movie about Joan Jett and the founding of her seminal seventies band. It's energetic and exceptionally well made; it never quite transcends the structural limitations of the historical biography, even something so recent and fresh as this.
I liked the performances a lot. Kristen Stewart has had her life taken away by the tabloidization of her personal life, but she's been a terrific actor for a long time. She's perhaps inchoate and finding herself off-stage, but she's a presence. That ungainliness and awkward intensity is not an act. Dakota Fanning is also astonishing good as Cherie Currie and Michael Shannon (hardly surprising) is coolly effective as the impresario that helped make and unbreak them. Sigismondi has a perceptive eye for composition and emotional detail, and she finds a poignant, tender quality in her young actresses that I found quite compelling.
(James Franco, right, as Allen Ginsberg in Howl.)