I’ve been following the flap about Michael Winterbottom’s version of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me without wanting to see the film. I have the book and that’s enough, as I hope to be making clear.
As is well known, the controversy centres on a full frontal, lovingly filmed scene where the antihero beats his girlfriend to death, something which she is apparently keen to have happen. That’s certainly accurate in regard to the book: it’s a pretty good capsule view of the overall theme of all Thompson’s work, in fact. It’s not that he hated women any more than he hated men. It’s just that in his world everyone is complicit and everyone is doomed, often to spectacularly brutal and ugly deaths portrayed in considerable detail.
Winterbottom is the first to film Thompson straight. The film version of The Grifters soft pedalled heavily on the incest motif running through the book. Both versions of The Getaway cut out the ending, where the hero and heroine are forced into the realisation that they will soon be forced to eat each other – literally eat each other.
Interviewed here, Winterbottom seems to be making out that the scene was a kind of commentary on the character’s mental illness. This misses the point. If you read a lot of Thompson’s work you soon come to realize that it’s the author himself who was stone crazy. A taut stylist. An ace plotter. A fellow with real insight into low life, much of it from personal experience. All of that, and completely fucking bananas to go with it. This is an excerpt from King Blood, Thompson’s last published novel:
" 'Wish I had me a nickel for every puss I cut off," he went on, carefully reinscribing the circle with his knife. "An ol' Indian trick, y'know, an' us Kings are probably more Indian than white. Funny thing is the woman don't hardly feel it - you don't feel nothin' do you?- till a long time afterward. That's maybe because it's mostly muscle, you know, an' stretchy: got more give to it than a mile o' cat gut. Why I seen a fella stretch a gal's puss clean over her head, an' then let it snap shut around her neck. Man, oh, man, what a sight to see!" His body shook with laughter. "That gal was flingin' herself around like a chicken with its head off: strangled to death by her own tokus.' "
At least Winterbottom never got hold of that. It was written towards the end of Thompson’s life, when he was immured in late period alcoholism and undergoing a more or less constant progression of cerebral seizures. Eventually, he decided to starve himself to death, and went ahead and did just that. Thus he avoided the fate of his grandfather, father, and son, who all died in psychiatric institutions.
But horrible things come shambling out in all his work. The hero of Savage Night – a terminally tubercular degenerate assassin – encounters a man who tells him a long, involved and plot-bending account of a farm he happens to own, a vagina farm, where he raises acres of vaginas. This is in the middle of an otherwise fairly conventional fifties noir thriller. And this character’s name is “Jim Thompson.”
Perhaps it should be noted that Thompson’s wife Alberta, speaking after his death and so under no compulsion, apparently described him as a marvelous man. She added that he worked constantly at various jobs and always tried to do the banal husband and provider thing. He also drank incessantly and wrote compulsively. So he just kept that one step ahead of whatever it was that pursued him. But he felt its breath on his neck, and so do you when you read him.
The thing about Thompson, I think, was that he wrote thrillers so he didn’t have to write his autobiography, which may well have resembled this man’s in a lot of ways. He wrote inexcusable things as an alternative to doing them and apparently succeeded. You can cut out the craziness from Thompson’s work and produce workmanlike thrillers. I’m not sure you can strip out the craziness and put it on screen in the bog standard art house movie way. I think you need some kind of insight into what compulsions the man himself might have been operating under and what he thought he was doing when he was writing those things.