Michael Winterbottom’s most complex film yet is also his most controversial, and troubling. Taken from Jim Thompson’s 1976 pulp novel which itself caused up roar upon release. TKIM is a film noir, come terse western thriller which takes a wild stab at creating a moral maze; the results have left people divided. It’s either a masterpiece or an effusive piece of filth which should be banned depending on who you talk to.
Casey Affleck is Lou Ford a young Sheriff’s deputy in West Texas. By day Ford cuts a modest, almost shy figure with a very promising career seemingly ahead of him. However there is a sad misogynist, evil man hiding away inside. The first victim of this is hooker Joyce Lakeland [Jessica Alba] who is seeing Ford on the side. The two are embroiled in a wild relationship which spills over when Lou starts beating her, and gets her to perform in highly questionable sex acts. Things really get out of hand when Joyce’s magnate husband, Chester [Ned Beatty] gets involved and is killed, with his wives battered body left to frame her for the crime. The heat is soon turned up on the deputy which threatens to impact on his life with girlfriend Amy Stanton [Kate Hudson].
Winterbottom creates a stylish and challenging landscape for his drama, the performances are largely convincing, although only Affleck is given that much to do.
The idea of casting two glamorous hollywood a-listers as the female victims is a deliberate one to pose the question of celebrity and our obsession with violence in films and art. While Hudson produces one of her most convincing portrayals to date in a role with a compelling voice, the most complex emotion Alba’s Joyce is given is confusion. Somewhat off putting is how she begs for more after the violence handed out. Of course it might well be bringing into question a woman’s role in the world as seen by men, and just how easy it is to ‘teach them some manners’ if you’re too lazy to engage them through conversation. But this is an old idea, and giving Joyce more of a voice would have been more interesting. The scene where we get a lingering shot of her face being battered to a bloody pulp makes the mistake of showing everything, therefore leaving nothing to the imagination and becoming as superficial as the character delivering the heinous act. The style of the film combined with what it is trying to say make for an uneasy mix.
As awful as the acts of violence are, the reason they stay with you is because there is very little else happening in the plot itself, which means although there are good things about the film these are overshadowed by those moments. We are never given any true motivation for Lou’s actions, his background never explored. The other major problem is that having put us though the emotionally ringer for three quarters of its length, the movie then tansforms into a more old fashioned Elmore Leonard style thriller which just feels bolted on, rather than gelling with the rest of the piece.
It may be fair to say that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet got a similar response upon release in 1986, and today people rightly see that film as a masterpiece. So who knows given time TKIM may be seen in the same light. But the verdict for now is that the director and screenwritter have not given us enough to justify the hellish violence, and that the story and characters are somewhat empty. Indeed only scratching the surface.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty
Runtime: 109 min