Last Saturday, indie distributor IFC Films bought the U.S. rights to "The Killer Inside Me," a star-studded project shot last spring on location in Oklahoma, in a deal signed amid mixed reactions from audiences at last week's Sundance Film Festival.
Variety reported that IFC paid around $1.5 million for the film, which is based on a pulp novel penned by Anadarko native Jim Thompson and published in 1952. The film is led by Casey Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone"), who stars as a sadistic and sociopathic smalltown sheriff named Lou Ford; Jessica Alba ("The Love Guru"), who plays a prostitute; and Kate Hudson ("Nine") as Ford's schoolteacher girlfriend. Bill Pullman ("Bottle Shock"), Ned Beatty ("Charlie Wilson's War") and Simon Baker (TV's "The Mentalist") also star.
In a press release, IFC Entertainment President Jonathan Sehring said his company had been excited about "Killer" since its Sundance premiere at the Park City, Utah, festival on Jan. 24.
"It is a stylish work of cinema by one of its great directors, with an incredible cast," Sehring said.
The film's violent subject matter elicited strong reactions from festivalgoers, according to numerous published accounts. Toronto Star movie columnist Peter Howell wrote that the film gave "new meaning" to gratuitous violence, "especially the kind directed at women," and reported that premiere audiences audibly groaned as Alba and Hudson were "punched and kicked to a bloody pulp" by Affleck's character.
A minor sensation stirred weeks prior to the festival when a scene depicting Alba being spanked ruthlessly by Affleck's character made the rounds on YouTube and other Web sites.
Alba left the Sundance premiere halfway through the screening, according to Howell and countless other published accounts, and at a screening the next day, director Michael Winterbottom ("A Mighty Heart") reportedly fielded a volley of questions about his film's violence toward women.
Howell wrote that a "clearly rattled" Winterbottom defended the movie, arguing that the Ford character was clearly insane and that he shot the movie through the vicious sheriff 's perspective, saying audiences shouldn't take this "parallel version" of the reality literally.
"Although there is a lot of violence in it and obviously there's a lot of violence directed toward women, there's also a lot of tenderness," Winterbottom said, according to Howell, who noted that some of the tender scenes depicted "sadistic lovemaking" rife with spankings, which Alba seems to enjoy until they become too harsh.
In its review, New York magazine likened "The Killer Inside Me" to "Antichrist" meets "Precious" meets "No Country for Old Men."
"Is the film misogynistic? A realistic depiction of misogyny? A vicious critique? Or just highbrow torture porn?" the magazine asked.
In his review, Variety's Todd McCarthy wrote that Winterbottom's use of violence is "blunt, direct and vivid enough to inflict winces, if not actual pain, on the audience," noting that some viewers "will no doubt look away."
McCarthy wrote that Winterbottom pieced together a coherent narrative with screenwriter John Curran (director of "The Painted Veil") that "when compared with the many films noir made during the period when the novel was written ... lacks punch, dynamism and genuinely seedy atmosphere." He added that absent is the "rich texture, moodiness and interconnectedness" of top-tier period crime films.
Other reviewers, like Patrick Z. McGavin of www.emanuellevy.com, were taken by its depiction of corrosive character and moral breakdown.
"Winterbottom offers one of his most chilling and distinctive works with his impressive and difficult adaptation of Thompson's gravest and greatest work," McGavin wrote, arguing that that while the violence is difficult to watch, "it stays there, and makes you consider the full implications of pain, horror and death." "Joe Wertz | Photo by Shannon Cornman