Michael Winterbottom's new film The Killer Inside Me, which comes out on Friday, has attracted comment for its graphic violence—Jessica Alba reportedly walked out of a screening, so put off was she by the unlikely sight of herself being beaten by Casey Affleck. You, too, can skip this adaptation of Jim Thompson's probably un-adaptable cult novel because, for all the blood, it's a bloodless and cursory affair. Here's a better use of your movie time: Log onto Netflix, find every previous movie of Winterbottom's you can (start the clock at 1997's Welcome to Sarajevo), and then banish the rest of your queue belowdecks. As off-target as his latest effort is, Winterbottom may be the most consistently absorbing and challenging director working in English-language cinema today. Certainly he's among the bravest.
Never heard of the man? Unjust but understandable. Though he employs movie stars and has been turning out films at a rate of at least one a year for more than a decade now, several of them modest masterworks, Winterbottom's biggest commercial success, and it wasn't big, was 2005's ingenuous but taunting Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story. If you saw it, you were likely enraptured or dumbfounded, or, ideally, both, given its origins in Laurence Sterne's word-riot The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, as forbidding an adaptation task as The Killer Inside Me.
Winterbottom's last great outing was 2007's criminally neglected A Mighty Heart, about the hunt for the abducted Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. This kinetic film has many merits, just two of which are that Winterbottom a) shot it in the same teeming Karachi streets where the actual abduction and pursuit took place, and then b) coaxed out of a pregnant Angelina Jolie, an actress from whom we expect so little, an exquisite performance. I defy you to not break down with her Marianne Pearl as she learns of her husband's gruesome fate. I've seen the film three times, and I still turn away from the screen as she collapses prone on the floor, gutted by a wail more animal than Lear's on the heath. Also on the third viewing I got so wrapped up in the chase, again—if it could be said to belong to a genre, A Mighty Heart is, of all things, a detective story—I half-expected Pearl to be found alive by the chief investigator, played by the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan with, as one reviewer rightly put it, "magisterial world weariness." Such is Winterbottom's touch with his global repertory.
To call A Mighty Heart a film about the hunt for Pearl doesn't do Winterbottom's gift for realism justice. It's almost closer to a restaging of the events. Of course, fiction and documentary have courted one another since cinema's invention, but Winterbottom and his longtime producer, Andrew Eaton, with whom he runs Revolution Films in London, consummate the aesthetic flirtation with more seriousness of purpose than anyone since Battle of Algiers creator Gillo Pontecorvo, and they do it more often.
To make In This World, another insanely under-seen triumph, Winterbottom, Eaton, their crew and two leads—schoolboys they found in Peshawar—traveled by car, bus, rail, boat, and foot from Pakistan to Iran to Turkey to Italy to France to England. Along the way they filmed in bazaars, mountain passes, and a shipping container, and while suspended in the chassis of an 18-wheeler, in order to depict the main characters' flight from Central Asia to London. All of this only weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Though, here again, depict is almost too weak a word. In This World is so mercilessly immersive, so unlike anything released theatrically before or since, some viewers who saw it without reading up beforehand had a Pontecorvo-esque reaction, believing they were at a documentary.
If your sympathy tends more to refugees from First World decay and pop culture, you can't do much better than Winterbottom's brimming, wondrous 24 Hour Party People, a paean to the frantic music scene that coalesced in late 1970s and early '80s Manchester around Joy Division. Startlingly, it was released in the same year, 2002, as In This World, and they make for a fine double bill, the former as gluttonous as the latter is austere.
From the moment the Happy Mondays' ecstasy-taking-and-club-going anthem "24 Hour Party People," from which the movie takes its name, begins blaring over the opening credits, you just know you're in for some of the most ecstatic moving-image-making in recent memory—for a "beatification of the beat," as Winterbottom's subject, Tony Wilson, the impresario who founded Factory Records, puts it. Steve Coogan's Wilson is a vain and manipulative toff, but the film works because Winterbottom takes him no less seriously for that—Wilson was a great observer of his time. The film is full of real archival footage and obscure cameos but also has a very personal tone. You feel the tug of Winterbottom's nostalgia for a dead era—the director is himself from outside Manchester—even as you watch him at times cruelly dissect it.
Not that he's didactic. Well, that is, discounting 2006's The Road to Guantanamo, a one-sided, lazy piece of agitprop from a director whose usual fault is that he has the journalist's inclination to present too many sides. And let's charitably gloss over Winterbottom's somber forays into Thomas Hardy adaptation—he is after all an Oxfordian whose film company's insignia is a red five-point star, which brings with it certain obligations. In Britain, Winterbottom is wrongly grouped with Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, for whose brow-beating class obsessions he has only slightly more time than he does for the imperial longings of Ridley Scott or the Oriental fetishizing of fellow British TV alumnus Danny Boyle (just compare Boyle's direction of Irrfan Khan in Slumdog Millionaire with Winterbottom's in A Mighty Heart, and you'll see what I mean). Winterbottom is traced back to the French and German cinema of the 1960s and '70s, thanks to his deftness with a handheld camera and fondness for council flat kitchens, and to Italian Neorealismo. He has made documentaries about Ingmar Bergman. But his oldest roots are at home, in the lyrical films of Robert Flaherty and Humphrey Jennings, such as Man of Aran and Listen to Britain, which are as much tone poems as documentaries.
Winterbottom's concern, when he's at his best, is with life as it's experienced, not as it's moralized about. This feel for people as they are, for air as it is, comes through in everything from the undulation of a Karachi crowd to the bullshit banter between Tony Wilson and his bands, from a glower on an Afghan boy's face to mortifying private moments like Marianne Pearl's moan. Or in one scene in 1999's Wonderland that I can't shake, in which a housewife sits alone in her darkened living room barking furiously in imitation of her neighbors' clamorous dog.
Because each of his movies is so different from the one before it, because he takes apart or simply ignores genres and interweaves film stock with digital video (deploying its painterliness as well as Michael Mann, the American director with whom he may have the most in common), Winterbottom is called a Postmodernist. But really he derives from the Arts and Crafts movement. Like many of his protagonists, he tries to take dehumanizing and dehumanized landscapes—the Hindu Kush, bombed-out Bosnia, Thatcherite Manchester, a beheading, Camp X-Ray or, far worse, a rave—and rehumanize them.
So good has Winterbottom become at channeling the rush and purr of humanity, in fact, I find some of his sequences are now lodged in my mind less like bits of film and more like memories. I'm not crazy: In 2006, members of the cast of Road to Guantanamo were detained by British authorities at Luton Airport upon returning from the Berlin Film Festival and interrogated, asked whether they intended to appear in any more "political" films. The following year Judea Pearl, Daniel's father, worried in the pages of the New Republic that A Mighty Heart played into the "hands of professional obscurers of moral clarity," because it refers to Guantanamo as one of the motivations of Pearl's murderers. An unfair charge, but it shows—as does Jessica Alba's walkout—that Winterbottom's realities are starting to transcend their artifice.