Friday, June 25, 2010

Killing Machines


Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

National Geographic Films

Opens June 25, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Written by John Curran

Starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Kate Hudson

IFC Films

Opens June 18, 2010

Two new movies—Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of The Killer Inside Me and Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary about American soldiers in Afghanistan, Restrepo—take very different routes in their explorations of killing. Death is a given in both films, which are Rorschach tests to gauge our reaction to the depiction of violence onscreen in an extremely violent age.

Along with journalist Junger’s book War, Restrepo came out of his and cameraman Hetherington’s imbedding with a group of soldiers who fight in the worst arenas of the Afghan war. Ninety-four tense minutes of sheer visceral actions and reactions divorced from outside considerations, this is as close to actual war I ever want to get.

In War, Junger and Hetherington are part of the narrative, interacting with the soldiers. Restrepo, however—despite the fact that they get spectacular shots of the soldiers while in firefights with the Taliban (you may be shaking your head wondering how they got such footage without getting wounded themselves)—never veers off-course as a diary recording the day-to-day lives of the men in the platoon.

We never see anyone else onscreen aside from these men—kidding around, building makeshift buffers with sandbags, sitting and waiting for something to happen, or reacting to it when it does—and the people whose lives are in their hands: their fellow soldiers and the Afghani locals, the latter of whom might or might not be helping the enemy.

Although we are in Afghanistan‘s Korengal Valley, deep inside the belly of the beast—where the most lethal fighting has gone on for what has become an endless war—there is not one pointedly political comment made by anyone about why they are still there battling a mainly unseen enemy. (Among Restrepo’s more salient virtues is showing the huge pockets of boredom that mark much of the war—which then suddenly erupt in a hail of bullets from out of nowhere.)

There are only occasional statements about the imposing, nearly impossible task given these brave and honorable young men, some of whom, in close-ups during interviews recorded after their tour of duty ended, look barely old enough to drive a car, let alone fight in a war. Restrepo places viewers in the midst of the fighting with a singlemindedness that shows off both the film’s and its subjects’ integrity. For that alone—along with much else—Restrepo should be seen and applauded.

Conversely, The Killer Inside Me, a study of a Texas deputy whose placid exterior (he has a good girl fiancĂ©e and abiding respect from the sheriff and locals) masks darker impulses, works almost entirely thanks to the subtly intense performance of Casey Affleck. An affair with a prostitute on the outskirts of town unleashes the man’s violent streak, and after literally beating the poor young woman to death—in a scene less shocking for its brutality than for what it does to one of Hollywood’s most beautiful faces, Jessica Alba’s—he plays cat-and-mouse, committing more killings while daring his law-enforcement partners to find him guilty of his heinous crimes.

Despite Winterbottom’s skillful direction and Affleck’s committed acting, throughout The Killer Inside Me I was reminded of Elio Petri’s brilliant 1970 thriller, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, in which the great actor Gian Maria Volonte played a police chief who, after methodically murdering his mistress and leaving every conceivable clue to point to himself, spends the entire movie getting away with his crime.

Petri’s classic still reverberates as an exhilarating exploration of monstrousness, unlike The Killer Inside Me, which fades from memory as soon as our protagonist’s final fantasy of forgiveness and martyrdom explodes onscreen.

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