Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The killer inside middle-class intellectuals

NPR did a story the other day on “The Killer Inside Me,” a drama in which Casey Affleck plays a sadistic killer sheriff. The violence in the movie is so graphic some people have walked out of early screenings, NPR reported. Here’s what Affleck told NPR about the violence in the film:

NORRIS: Did you have any trepidation about making this film, especially the violence – the violence against women? Mr. AFFLECK: I thought about it a lot. But my fears were allayed when I spoke to Michael [Winterbottom, the director] and he wanted to make it very, very realistic. And I thought, okay, I’m in. Because to do the movie any other way, to depict the violence in a way that wasnt disturbing would be irresponsible. It would kind of contribute to desensitization of, you know, of our cultural desensitization to violence because it’s everywhere – in videogames and TV and movies. And the audience never feels anything. They never really feel upset. And if you’re going to show that stuff, then let people feel something like what it might actually be like to experience that violence in real life.


Ah, so Casey Affleck thinks ultra-graphic film violence is actually a social good, because it’s meant to combat the desensitization to violence that people get from … where, exactly? Umm…NPR listener Cynthia Harrison of Washington DC called B.S. on Affleck, saying, accurately, that “his movie is part of a popular genre: gore for middle-class intellectuals who don’t want to admit to bloodlust.”Well said. I note too that “The Killer Inside Me” comes from Mel Gibson’s production company, Icon. [UPDATE: A reader correctly points out that Gibson sold Icon, which he did, in 2008. I apologize for my mistake. — RD.] What demons that man his inside him. He did not direct this film, but his films tend toward intense violence. Some called “The Passion of the Christ” pornographically violent, but I didn’t see it that way. The violence was hard to watch there, but I saw it as artistically justified to chip away at all the plaster that had accumulated on the body of Jesus Christ in our culture, and to make His suffering real to the viewer. I liked “Apocalypto” a lot, in spite of the ultra-violence. But after a while, it’s hard to avoid that Gibson just gets off on ultraviolence. In the NPR piece, the interviewer raises a good question: does a film fail artistically if the violence is so intense audiences are driven from the theater?I think so, and funnily enough, the first and only time that question occurred to me was watching Gibson’s Vietnam film, “We Were Soldiers Once.” The battle scenes were so intense and gory that I had to turn away frequently, and found the narrative very difficult to follow. Some fans responded to that criticism by saying, “Well, that’s what combat is like.” Maybe so; I’m in no position to judge. But Gibson’s film failed as art, at least as far as I was concerned, because art is not supposed to be a reproduction of raw experience, but the distillation of raw experience so that it can be grasped and understood.[UPDATE: A reader points out that Gibson starred in that film, but did not direct it. So the artistic failure belongs to director Randall Wallace, not Mel Gibson. Sorry for the error. — RD]

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posted June 25, 2010 at 5:12 pm

I’ve been known to leave a theater because of violence on the screen and I’ve never thought of those I left behind hooting and hollering in near-ecstatic joy as “intellectuals”. They didn’t appear very bookish, I have to say.
This isn’t to say, of course, that very smart people can’t rationalize an intellectual argument to explain their endeavors to accumulate money.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 5:21 pm

How, then, should the violence be portrayed? I’m in favor of showing graphic, realistic, violence in movies that are about violent topics.
That the violence plays into some cultural construction is not a criticism, as you seem to suggest; indeed, what doesn’t play into a cultural construction? The more important question is: what kind of cultural view of violence are we constructing? Hopefully, as I see it, we are showing the ugly, graphic, visceral, and consequential impact of violence on peoples’ lives and not celebrating violence in the name of the national-state in spurts of patriotic zeal.

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Jon S.

posted June 25, 2010 at 6:06 pm

How is it that Shakespear (or Alfred Hitchcock for that matter) could show the dark side of life, perhaps even “the ugly, graphic, visceral, and consequential impact of violence on peoples’ lives” without a resort to graphic violence? At what point does the violence get so realistic that it is an idictment on one’s soul to watch with any pleasure and not walk away (take for example the torture/horror films like Hostel, where we are to get our jollies by watching realistic portrayls of torture)? Like defenders of pornography, Casey Afflek would have us believe the impossible, that by indulging our basest instincts we actually learn to control them. Doesn’t common experience tells us the opposite? This is the gore of the gladitorial games without having to pick up the dead bodies.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Re: I’m in favor of showing graphic, realistic, violence in movies that are about violent topics.
The problem is that the violence isn’t realistic: it’s played up with a lascivious sadism that drinks it in like a vampire sucking blood. And it makes the audience that vampire, feeding their own personal darkness with the violence.
There are ways to do violence, even brutal graphic violence that avoids this.
The most graphically violent film I ever saw was the 1985 British nuclear war film “Threads”. It turns away from nothing that this topic would entail: crushed limbs, unanaesthized surgery, rats feeding on unburied bodies, charred corpses of children blown into denuded trees, burning housepets, the gastroenteric symptoms of radiation sickness, summary executions, starvation, despair. But the camera never lingered on these things. They were depicted in brief, stark cold realism and then the camera moved on. The film showed a hell that might well appall the Devil, but never once invited the viewer to feast on it.

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Scott Lahti

posted June 25, 2010 at 6:46 pm

You could fill Libraries of Congress with the pretentious blather of half-educated showbiz-cum-literary “intellectuals” playing at fearless gazing into the abyss – in the realms of depicted violence as of cloacal eyedroppings through the keyhole of the literary/cinematic bedroom door.
For a few countersuits, have a look at the essay “Night Words” from the mid-1960s by George Steiner, on the numbing and robotic brutality of post-Chatterley case pornography. Follow, from the mid-1990s, with Rochelle Gurstein (a pupil of the late Christopher Lasch), The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles Over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art, and Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography by the late Roger Shattuck, master of Belle Époque French modernism and one of the last of our literary scholars who wrote for the general reader with a humanist breadth and stylistic brio worthy of his subjects.
When the intelligent minority wakes up fully to the fact that the most savage among philistines are to be found not within the plastic-slipcovered rec rooms of Orange County Republican Ford dealers, but within the innermost sanctum of the arts “community” (sic), and that the world’s biggest and most repressed nerds are to be found within the ranks of the full-on libertine and apostles of sexual “liberation” (see Jean Bethke Elshtain in the TLS), eager to spread the Good News of Kinseyite/Reichian/Hefneresque redemption, and that of their divers and cognate fifth-rate kook apostles, to a supposedly “square” world in need of a federal DOA (Daily Orgasm Amendment), we will have on our horny hands something like a sexual revolution truly worthy of the name – one in which heads will, indeed, truly roll – just not the smaller ones.*
*Let the small head rock her. – Great White
No smaller than the one on your shoulders, dude. – Robert Christgau

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posted June 25, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I’d have to see it to judge. Movies that show graphic violence just for aesthetic effect I generally dislike (personally), because they tend to make violence cool in some way. But if indeed it’s about more shocking people against violence by showing exactly how ugly it really is, I can see it working.
But as said, see first, then judge.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 7:04 pm

I think it does depend a lot on the specific movie and how it handles it. I haven’t seen much about the Affleck movie but don’t exactly expect Hollywood to do this sort of stuff properly; however, the violence in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” that I saw recently isn’t something you enjoy (or at least wasn’t something I enjoyed) because it’s presented as the profoundly unpleasant and even evil thing it is, instead of made aesthetically pleasant and exciting.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 7:43 pm

“You could fill Libraries of Congress with the pretentious blather…” Indeed: “The violence was hard to watch there, but I saw it as artistically justified…”

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posted June 25, 2010 at 7:45 pm

I don’t watch TV and rarely watch movies. So my reality doesn’t include things like the violent films mentioned. I am happier because of it.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm

When I saw “The Pianist,” I remember thinking to myself that the only good that can come from a growing acceptance of violence in movies was so such true stories could be told. But I suppose the truth was still only half-told.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Sorry. That last one was for the pastor outing thread. Here’s the two cents for the violent film industry: “Get it now, the entire Gibson collection. Intellectually and spiritually sanitized snuff films for YOUR pleasure. Order now and recieve our free cilice and silk autoasphyxiation noose. Lose yourself in the pathology…..”

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Charles Cosimano

posted June 25, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Those who think that justification even matters have come to the ball too late. They want to make it, the audience likes it and anyone who thinks it can be stopped will be crushed like an eggshell.
The “intelligent minority” can wake up, scream bloody murder and it will accomplish nothing except to be made the object of ridicule in the next movie.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 9:34 pm

The last film of this kind I saw was American Psycho, a decision I truly regretted. This was around the time I also saw American Beauty, and in both cases there were kids in the audience with their parents. This only amplified the grief I felt.
I stepped out of the river, onto the shore, and let everyone else keep drifting towards the falls. It has been one of the best decisions I ever made, and it extends to TV, music, everything. Before I watch an R-rated film, I know why it received that rating. When Mad Men degenerated further than I was comfortable with, I jumped ship.
Just like with a decision to live according to financially sound principles while your friends go on cruises paid for with credit cards, it’s amazing how much peace of mind is still to be found in the world.

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Mark in Houston

posted June 25, 2010 at 9:49 pm

“The Killer Inside Me” is based on a novel by Jim Thompson, a pulp fiction writer whose work was so good that it was posthumously recognized as great literature. His work depicts violence in a very realistic but unglamorous manner. If the film is true to Thompson’s vision, the violence in it will be nasty but not inappropriate. But, as we all know, the history of books being turned into films isn’t a great one.

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posted June 26, 2010 at 2:25 am

Jon says:
“The film showed a hell that might well appall the Devil, but never once invited the viewer to feast on it.”
The invitation made by the film often, unfortunately, has little to do with the reactions of people in the audience. Take, for example, “Full Metal Jacket.” I’d heard that movie quoted by my friends in high school for ages before I ever saw it, and they always quoted it as if it were hilarious. The brainwashing drill sergeant, the sadistic soldiers, everything – it was all quoted as jokes. When I finally sat down to watch it for myself, I spent two hours in a double horror. First, for the horror of the war that the movie so aptly depicts. Second, for the fact that my friends had so utterly missed the point, that they treated the film like a comedy. Violent films may not be inviting their viewers to revel in the violence, but that does not seem to stop them.
Captcha: hoedowns strategy

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posted June 26, 2010 at 9:50 am

Well, the film sounds horrible, and the director is probably one of these dime a dozen trendy Hollywood creeps, but there may be a grain of kernel of truth in what he’s saying. Sometimes it’s important for us to see a graphic picture of violence and murder in order to understand its full horror, and to inoculate us against shrugging and saying ‘it happens’.
I’m thinking in particular of something like the scene in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, where we see (if I remember right) the Falangist military officer beat an old man to death with a beer bottle. People (on all sides of the aisle, myself included) are good at rationalizing away political violence when we approve of the cause, and if confronted by a bland statement like ‘Colonel Vidal executed a dozen partisans’, it’s too easy for us to explain that away as the price of law and order, the cost of war, or something like that. The graphic depiction of the killing in that film reminds us that some things can never be excused, no matter how much we approve of the cause in which they were done, and beating an old man to death with a bottle is one of them.
Captcha: ‘cleveland dimer’???

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Nick the Greek

posted June 26, 2010 at 9:58 am

Ah, so Casey Affleck thinks ultra-graphic film violence is actually a social good, because it’s meant to combat the desensitization to violence that people get from … where, exactly?
From the sanitized, pain-free, consequence-free movie violence that this film is apparently reacting against, perhaps?

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Rick Road Rager

posted June 26, 2010 at 11:03 am

There is a blood lust in many(perhaps most) of us. Read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book entitled Blood Rites. She traces the origins of war and how societies glorify the sacrifice of both our enemies as well as the deaths of our own “heroes” who have died “in the defense of our country”.
As a young officer in Korea decades ago(1959-1960), our unit was ambushed by North Korean guerrillas while guarding a supply convoy on its’ way to the DMZ. We drove them off, but had to defend ourselves at almost point blank range. At first it scared the shit out of me. But later on, I began to realize how much I had really enjoyed the killing.
This innate blood lust, once revealed, drove me back to the church and a marvelous battalion chaplain who helped me renew my personal faith in God and Christ.
The blood lust in Gibson’s movies is rather bizarre. But his depiction of actual combat in “We Were Soldiers Once”” was really quite accurate!! War is a difficult, demanding, dangerous and really ugly business. there’s nothing “glorious” about it.

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Scott Lahti

posted June 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm

The phoniness and philistinism of the pro-graphic violence side in this debate lies in its earnest, coldly clinical and propagandistic didacticism – call it Atrocialist Realism – its infuriating presumption of prior desensitization in need of correcting on the part of a public whose diver psychic makeup, on the evidence so far presented, it doesn’t even begin to understand.
And let’s call BS instanter on the phony claim that those of us in our dissent on the side of art are somehow intellectual prudes unwilling, ostrich-like, to acknowledge the presence of radical evil in the world – there are words to describe such an attitude, none of them fit for a family blog. That such jaw-droppingly naive accusations are usually supported with reference to contemporary political enormities is more telling than their levelers would care to admit, and assumes some sort of direct correlation between art and political praxis: unless we spoon-feed the audience the View From the Surgeon’s Knife, they will somehow lack the elementary knowledge that horrible people do horrible things and are not to be emulated.
Anyone with even an freshman-year acquaintance with the vast mountain range of world literature these last 3000 years would snicker at such claims of benighted prudery supposedly obtaining until we postmodern clinicians delivered unto a reality-hungry world the Good News of redemption through splatter. Tell that to Sophocles, who, sorry ripping-yarn auteur, kind of scooped you a couple of grand yearwise on the gore front. Tell it to Dante, whose ability to limn radical evil would blacken the hairs on your arms six ways from Ash Wednesday. Tell it to the great Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz, one of the most millennial works of literary art to come out of the Shoah, manages while speaking in the calmest of documentary tones worthy of the Recording
Angel, to convey that sadness beyond words, echoed in Beethoven’s late quartets and Barber’s Adagio, arising from our recognition that humans are and always have been capable of things no human being should have to witness directly in spoon-fed nihilist form to grasp as the result of human appetites for destruction that refuse all traditional limits.
People who think like that have no place whatever in the realm of art, for what they are about is not about art in the first place – it’s social therapy, cynical and elitist to the core.

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posted June 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Not to dwell too much on Mel Gibson, but it’s not as though his zeal for violence started with “The Passion.” This is the same man who played in “Lethal Weapon” and “Braveheart.”
Captcha: “Left Nunnery.” Perhaps an oblique reference to Gibson’s role as Hamlet and Hamlet’s denunciation of Ophelia?

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disappointed by world cup

posted June 26, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Rod, several times you’ve written that Mel Gibson directed “We Were Soldiers.” He didn’t. Randall Wallace adapted the screenplay and directed the film.
Mel Gibson does not have any connection to “The Killer Inside Me.” Several production companies are listed at IMDb and Icon is not included. The end of this trailer provides a website, which means that Icon Distribution International is distributing the film in the UK. Icon Distribution was sold by Gibson and he no longer controls it.

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Rod Dreher

posted June 26, 2010 at 5:33 pm

You are correct — I’ve made the corrections in the body of the original text. Thanks.

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Roque in Houston

posted June 26, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Exactly how does Rod know that the NPR caller’s statement is accurate, without having seen it? And also: that’s what art’s supposed to be? One should avoid such a narrow definition of art. Art that reproduces raw experience can also help one “grasp and understand” raw experience; so-called distillation of raw experience, by requiring selection and emphasis, is its own kind of untruth.
Winterbottom is actually far from a “dime a dozen trendy Hollywood creeps” one commenter imagines, and I think Casey Affleck is one of the few discerning actors in the business. Anyway, pontificating at length about ultra-violence in the movie without even seeing it is silly in the extreme, just as remarking vaguely about Hollywood only underscores one’s ignorance about this production. Mark’s comment is a smart one: indeed, Thompson’s book is a chilling masterpiece that transcends its place in American genre lit. If its clinical vision of an ineffably warped psyche is faithfully preserved, then the movie ought to approach art. If it doesn’t, like “We Were Soldiers Once,” it’ll fail as art.

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posted July 25, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Great information… i’m looking forward to your next post

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