John Donne, singing in the chains of his devotion in the Holy Sonnets, wrote: “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” The viewer of The Killer Inside Me
(), a harrowing tale of violence in 1950s small-town Texas, might utter: “Batter my eyes, senses and stomach, three-personed artist.” The trinity here is director Michael Winterbottom, American novelist and pulp genius Jim Thompson (skilfully adapted by screenwriter John Curran) and actor Casey Affleck.
This film is so good it has already put the anti-screen-violence crowd in a spin. It is good because the violent scenes get to us. The violence means something, even when seeming most horrific in its meaninglessness. In a town purulent with tension, anxiety and small-time corruption – Winterbottom captures the unease of a notionally prosperous postwar America – Affleck plays the young sheriff. His high-pitched drawl more hypnotic even than in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Affleck portrays another murderous Ford.
Lou Ford likes to hit women. He sometimes likes to hit them to death. Love gets him that way. From the moment we step inside this character, first-person-narrated in Thompson’s novel, overvoicing his thoughts here, we struggle with his darkness as if it were our own.
Winterbottom films in designer-tawdry colours – like a 1950s movie that has faded to washed-out blues and dirty sepias – and provides the music track with exotically improbable bedfellows (“Una furtive lagrima”; “Shame on you”). This is an America, says the style, out of joint. Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, both glammed up as if to light a little defiant extra fire in hicktown hell, are superb as the women on the wrong end of the sheriff’s soul and fist. Alba is the hooker with some kind of heart. Hudson is the girlfriend who has chosen the wrong town for her dream of upward mobility. Their agonies seem those of a world condemned to pay for the audacity of disguising mortal decay with cosmetic show or fantasies of betterment.
Everyone here is guilty, everyone innocent: even Ford, to a degree, as it becomes clear his insanity is as uncontrollable as it is lethally controlling. Those who decry the film’s violence are on the wrong mission. There are times in grown-up storytelling when violent actions should be barely watchable. Here is a film whose subject is violence’s human and inhuman toll – and violence’s sickly ubiquity even in places and times that seem to promise freedom from it.
Youth is beautifully doomed in French director André Téchiné’s films. He made Wild Reeds and The Witnesses (about the first Aids generation) and paints adolescent tragedy in saturated colours. They are almost pre-Raphaelite in The Girl on the Train () – glowing, burnished – as he reconstructs the truth-based story of a girl (Rosetta’s Emilie Dequenne, patron star of sullen strop), who fraudulently told police she had been attacked by youths on a suburban train. It became a furore in France half a decade ago. “Another anti-Semitic assault,” cried the press (which counted 541 in 2006), until they learnt the attack had never happened and the girl, here called Jeanne, wasn’t even Jewish.
Egg on Rue Grub faces. But why did the girl do it? Téchiné gives Jeanne a background loosely drawn from fact, including a mother (Catherine Deneuve) and boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle), for both of whom she had some obscure need to (re)define herself. Boyfriend Franck is a tattooed wrestler, a free spirit – the two meet roller-skating down a street – with his own weird need to scar and deface himself. Mum is a pretty suburban frump who wants for her daughter a decent job and future. (Deneuve can’t do “frump”, but she’s a Téchiné fixture, so we take what we get.)
The film doesn’t quite solve the puzzle – why the girl did it – but it doodles intriguing equations and theories on the blackboard. Freedom in the weak-willed or weak-minded lacks a vital component: self-validation. Jeanne seems to be searching for the right to be free. Should she pay a due or penance? In Dequenne’s performance we sense her restless, latent desolation even when making love (a scene brilliantly dark and ominous). Téchiné divides the story into two sections, headed “Circumstances” and “Consequences”. It’s a clever irony. The professorial, omniscient artist sub-categorises his lesson, while making it abundantly clear he is involved in a guessing game like the rest of us.
Oh dear: The Brothers Bloom (). When an Irish-American filmmaker – Rian Johnson – uses that surname, it means Joyce’s Ulysses is stuck in his mental oesophagus. Quick: Heimlich manoeuvre. This time-hopping caprice about two New Jersey brothers (Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo) practising con artistry around the world is almost certifiably Joycean. Leprechaun-dancing with its voice-over; reverencing forms of roguishness; even giddying the boys’ libidos with a Mollyish girlfriend. She (Rachel Weisz) is worldly wiser than either. She is even called Penelope, well-known wife to another Ulysses.
Meanwhile, the atlas is a shrug. We take in Montenegro, Prague, Belgium, Mexico, St Petersburg ... Can critics claim air miles? Filmmaker Johnson comes down the aisle regularly, offering duty-free goods: here an animated brochure of the Hermitage, there a sexy, Japanese, bomb-making, living doll (Rinko Kikuchi). But in the curvature of Planet Cinema, too-much can meet itself coming the other way as too-little. Unlike Brick, Johnson’s promising first feature, The Brothers Bloom doesn’t know when to touch down and let us off the plane, to stretch our brains – for just a little – and/or to ground our willingness to believe.
22.214.171.124 () and Kicks () are undernourished Britflicks, both about girls who wanna have fun. In the first, Noel Clarke, blowing his promise as the debut director of Kidulthood, blends youth romp with international thriller. He pinballs four bimbos around two big cities (London, New York) as if trying for some kinetic youth variant on Sex and the City. Watching the animated inertia that results is like being stuck in a waiting room with a pile of Time Out travel supplements.
Kicks is darker and braver. Two soccer fans (Kerrie Hayes, Nichola Burley) kidnap their Liverpool FC idol, a dim, puppy-cute player on the brink of stardom. The girls tie him up and torment him with their adoration. Hell hath no fury like a girl whose hormones have been stoked on the football terraces. The film moves in and out of credibility as if on a dimmer switch, but Hayes and Burley give it the wattage they have.
Death at a Funeral () and She’s Out of My League () are advance warnings of the Hollywood silly season. The first, directed by no less than Neil LaBute, remakes a two-year-old British romp about dead-and-alive shenanigans at a funeral wake. Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence are among those lost in action. The second is a sweet-natured, shaky rom-com with one hysterical scene: the parents-in-law choose the exact wrong moment to visit the love nest. To know more, check out the DVD. For this film you don’t need a multiplex.