The Wimp Inside Me

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 28 May 2010

Yes, I wimped out. I sat through most of that scene in Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me with my hands over my eyes. The dread I felt as Casey Affleck pulled on a pair of leather gloves and I realised what was about to happen, the squelching and crunching as he reduced Jessica Alba to a pulp (it's hard to block your ears whilst covering your face) and a glimpse I snatched between parted fingers of her distended face at the end were more than enough.

In many ways the anticipation was the worst. All the reports of the shocked reaction to the film at festivals left a sense of foreboding hovering over the press screening. This was not helped by the fact that after finishing Jim Thompson's novel, on which the film is based, I'd vowed never to read it again. It hadn't been the gore that had unsettled me – at the time I was devouring James Ellroy's LA Quartet, a far more gruesome experience – but the all too real sensation it elicited of sharing a point of view with a seriously twisted mind.

The backlash against the film seems to have forced Winterbottom to take up his most unsympathetic persona – that of the hectoring moralist. He told GQ that the violence is graphic precisely because he wants us “to feel the ugliness of violence”. He goes on: “If I watch a film and you're intended to enjoy someone being beaten up, I find that uncomfortable”. Well, there goes Van Damme's oeuvre. In fact, there go most of my favourite thrillers. I don't think I have an unhealthy interest in violence – since being the recipient of a particularly vicious Chinese burn in primary two I've managed to avoid it very successfully, thank you very much – but I also know that it has always been a vital part of storytelling. I don't think we'd still be reading The Iliad if Achilles and Hector had settled their differences with a game of ping pong.

The boundaries of what is acceptable in fictional violence have ebbed and flowed over the centuries, pushed on by society's thirst for new shocking images and pulled back by its fear of their effect. What Winterbottom's comments remind us is that, in the heated moments when these boundaries are being redrawn, we often forgot that real violence and fictional violence are not the same, and that the relationship between the two is never simple. The difference was made very clear to me by a recent Storyville documentary about Robert King, a war photographer who has worked in all those places that are not popular city break destinations – Sarajevo, Grozny, Baghdad, etc. Near the end of the programme was a (seemingly) endless length of video footage which he had shot in the immediate aftermath of a massive car bomb in a busy street in Iraq. The images were horrific and, worst of all, real. Unlike Jessica Alba, none of these people were going to get up, mop off the fake blood, and return to their normal lives. These deaths were not part of a carefully plotted storyline. Real violence changes everything, suddenly, catastrophically and irreversibly. You can't just put your hands over your eyes and wait for it to be over.