Four days after the media reported that Australian actor Matthew Newton allegedly assaulted his fiancée, Rachel Taylor, Michael Winterbottom’s controversial film, The Killer Inside Me, reached our shores. The film – based on Jim Thompson’s pulp fiction novel – has caused outrage and divided audiences across the globe for graphically showing women being beaten.
When screened at the Sundance Film Festival, many audience members walked out before the film finished. The first question a woman asked the director was, ‘How dare you? How dare Sundance?’
With violent films commonplace at the cinemas, what makes The Killer Inside Me elicit such strong emotion? While extremely brutal, it is arguably no more violent than films like Fight Club, American History X and Romper Stomper. What separates Winterbottom’s feature from other violent films is that it is one of few that realistically depicts women viciously assaulted.
In a review for the ABC’s At The Movies, Margaret Pomeranz tried to understand Winterbottom’s intention, suggesting, ‘Maybe the only explanation for the two ultra-violent scenes of violence towards women were that he wants to say, “Hey, everyone, this is what it looks like.”’
But what does violence against women really look like? As a society we are often reluctant to acknowledge that it still exists. Most people would be shocked to learn that one in three Australian women will be the victim of assault at some stage of their life; or that domestic violence poses the greatest risk for disease and premature death for women aged 15 to 44 and costs the country $8 billion each year; or that between 2003-2004 almost 35,000 mothers sought sheltered accommodation to escape domestic violence.
Matthew Newton’s alleged assault on Taylor highlights the mainstream media’s tendency to avoid important discussions about domestic abuse. A media circus has swarmed around Newton, looking for explanations of how someone, particularly a celebrity, could be capable of such a thing.
Newton may well be suffering a mental illness, but when it comes to violence towards women the media is all too ready to look for reasons – whether it is alcohol abuse, mental disorders or drug use – to make it appear as if domestic abuse is out of the ordinary, when really it is not. Doing this means this issue continues to be left on the sidelines of public awareness.
In The Killer Inside Me, a detective says to the killer, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), that Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) looks like ‘mince meat’ after Affleck’s assault. Affleck looks disgusted, to which the detective replies, ‘Well that’s the truth, she looked like a burger.’ An awful description but his implication is clear – why sugar-coat it? Her face and the abuse she endured were horrific.
When American popstar Rihanna was beaten by then-boyfriend Chris Brown, images of her battered face circulated the internet. Hit, kicked and smashed against a car window, her face was extremely bruised and swollen – not too dissimilar to the women in The Killer Inside Me. Brown was apologetic, but reasoned Rihanna should not of spoken out about it, and that ‘all of the details should remain a private matter’, kept from the public.
And when we aren’t faced with confronting images of assault, there are often questions whether the abuse even occurred. When Mel Gibson’s Russian girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva reported that he had hit her in the mouth, knocking a tooth out, there were immediately suggestions she could be making it up to get a chunk of his fortune.
Meanwhile, Charlie Sheen is the highest paid small-screen actor for his role in Two and a Half Men despite being involved in domestic abuse on numerous occasions. In the past, he has shot his then-fiancée Kelly Preston in the leg, later deemed an accident by the police; allegedly threatened to harm then-wife Denise Richards; and was charged with inflicting abuse on wife Brooke Mueller. Yet, CBS continues to support Sheen, paying him US$1.25 million per episode for his role in the popular sitcom. Each week, many Australians tune in to watch charming, ladies man ‘Charlie Harper’, making it all the more hard to remember the violent Charlie Sheen.
Given that we are unwilling to confront violence against women in society, it is little wonder we cannot watch it on screen. As Winterbottom said in response to the film, ‘The violence wasn’t there to excite or titillate people, it wasn’t there to say, “Hey, this is a really cool way of killing someone,” it was there to show you how messed up Lou is. And that’s what violence should do. It should shock you. That’s why you show it in a film.’
And he is right – we should be shocked, we should be outraged, and then just maybe one day we can start to confront the sad reality of violence against women.
Jean Kemshal-Bell is an Honours Journalism student at La Trobe University and part of upstart’s editorial team.