Michael Winterbottom's latest film surfed in on a wave of moral outrage. Stories were whispered about graphic scenes of sado-masochism, depraved and prolonged violence against women and attractive young actresses getting their faces punched off by Ben Affleck's brother. So, naturally, I leapt at the opportunity to leer at the film when it skulked onscreen at the local art-house ponce-pit.
The story deals with a young, small-town Sheriff's deputy named Lou Ford. He seems an upstanding member of the community but harbours a dark, sociopathic nature akin to Patrick Bateman in a cowboy hat. The movie passively observes his attempts to execute an elaborate, obscurely motivated revenge plot against a local property developer. The plot involves shootings, beatings, dead hookers, blackmail and various other film-noir staples, all taken to their logical extreme.
Winterbottom presents the horrific events in a cold, stark, non-judgemental manner, leading to an austere and detached feel which puts the audience almost in the mindset of Affleck's Ford. Indeed, there are frequent moments of blacker-than-black comedy as the absurdity of Ford's take on events moves ever further from the brutality of what we are being presented with.
Affleck's performance is also a major factor in the discomforting assimilation of audience-into-film. Whether in omnipresent voice-over or smarmily-charming person, Affleck hits all the right notes; making Ford a creepily effective addition to the pantheon of cinema-psychos. He goes through the motions with his girlfriend and the townsfolk, smiling and polite, but all the time there is a void behind his eyes. This isn't the twitchy weirdo of Affleck's nervy and opportunistic Robert Ford, but an altogether more reptilian and confident predator. A brilliant performance.
There's also a career-best turn from Jessica Alba as an ill-fated prostitute (not really saying much when her previous best performance consisted of having hair the same colour as her skin and holding up her hands whilst pulling a "hard-sums" face in "Fantastic Four"), solid work from Kate Hudson as Ford's oblivious girlfriend, Ned Beatty applying some bluster, Simon Baker (That Mentalist off the telly) as a dogged cop on Ford's trail, Elias Koteas as a union boss who knows too much, and a barnstorming two-scene cameo from Bill Pullman as an evangelical lawyer.
Obviously the most talked about aspects of this film are the violence and the representation of women. Ford is a sexual sadist, and both the women in his life are seen to enjoy this. They are both subservient, and any rebellion in them is soon quashed by Ford's apparent charm or a little sexual aggression. This representation alone could prove problematic in certain readings of the film, but add in the scenes where Ford coldly and calculatedly murders each of his women and neither of them lift a finger to fight back, and there is a very dubious aftertaste indeed.
Now, Winterbottom has stated that the film is told from Ford's point of view, so we must ask ourselves if he is a reliable narrator. He's obviously insane, so are we seeing merely his understanding of events? He thinks he can solve an argument with his girlfriend by grabbing her crotch, so that is what we see?
It does hurt the film slightly, in terms of realism, to have Alba's character, who lashes out at Ford in their first meeting, simply curl up and accept a fatal beating. Is this merely a problem with the staging of the scene? An irrational turn in characterisation? Is she really so subservient to Ford that she will allow him to punch her repeatedly in the face until his arms get too tired? Or are we simply seeing Ford's understanding of events?
I don't know.
It's the first time in a while that I genuinely don't know what to make of a film. It is relentlessly ambiguous in content and structure, there's no obvious message to speak of, practically no expository dialogue, certain characters and sub-plots that drift in and out of the film with little consequence, an increasing lack of faith in the narrator or the fact that any of what we are seeing is actually happening, and the ultimate sense that the film is as unknowable and impenetrable as its protagonist.
This ambiguity is both the strength and the weakness of the picture. Winterbottom has, in inviting interpretation and challenging his audience, opened the film up to extremely unfavourable readings.
Is it a send-up of the sexual violence of the noir tradition? How many times did a Noir Private-Dick slap a dame and then force a kiss on her that she soon responded positively to? Is it an indictment of the archaic masculine ideal of the subservient woman? Is it simply mindless exploitation of pretty young actresses, masquerading as art?
Whatever the motivations and connotations, it is certainly an interesting film; worth watching for Affleck's performance and the undoubtedly endless debates it will inspire.