Last night’s premiere of The Killer Inside Me at Sundance will probably be one of those screenings that goes down in the dusty halls of history. At the Q&A after the movie, an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s hands-down classic novel, a woman stood up and chewed out director Michael Winterbottom for making the movie and Sundance for programming it. Her problem: the extreme violence visited upon women in the film.

And so the buzz begins! The story today is not about the film as a whole but about a scene where Casey Affleck’s character of Lou Ford savagely beats Jessica Alba’s prostitute character into a coma. It’s a rough scene, sure. And the movie has other instances of violence against women that are rough as well. In one scene a woman pisses herself after a savage beating that leaves her windpipe crushed. It’s ugly. It’s unpleasant. It’s hard to watch.

It’s the fucking point.

While I wasn’t as wild about Winterbottom’s film as I hoped to be* (I am a big fan of Winterbottom as well as the original novel), the fact that the scenes of violence left people so shaken (a woman behind me at the screening this morning kept mumbling ‘Jesus Fucking Christ’ during the beating scenes) means the film succeeds. Lou Ford is an unrepentant sociopath, possibly the scariest in literature, and what he is does is horrible and evil and cruel. You’re not supposed to be excited or thrilled by this violence.

But this is still the debate that rages every time a movie like this is made. It’s like people can’t watch this stuff without realizing that the violence isn’t meant to thrill or to titillate but to horrify and assault the audience. And it’s cool if you don’t like that – you simply shouldn’t see movies that seek to assault the audience. I don’t think that this film – based on a novel from 1952! – is hiding the fact that it’s a toughie. It’s not a sweet story. The Killer Inside Me is one of Thompson’s most famous works, and its’ well-known as a truly disturbing story told from the sociopath’s point of view. Why would anyone expect anything different from the film?

While the woman’s outburst at the Q&A indicates how successful Winterbottom is with this scene, a review from Movieline puts a QED at the end of that thesis. 

After making love and discussing their plans to reconvene a few weeks down the line, Lou pulls on a pair of black gloves, then begins to punch Alba in the face, at full force, repeatedly. The camera does not turn away, and as he takes a good dozen shots at her head, her features begin to distort at each impact with his closed fist.

The camera does turn away, and most of the punches are shot from a worm’s eye view in a way that has Affleck punching into the bottom right hand corner of the screen. There are some punches that we see brutally connect with Alba’s face, but the very long beating scene is not as explicit as the viewer thinks it is. It’s like Psycho‘s shower scene (in concept, not quality) – the way it is shot and edited makes it feel much more graphic than it really is.

The future of the movie remains up in the air. No one has bought it, and I suspect that it might need trims just to keep it humming as well as to appease the MPAA. Will the scene make it uncut into the final version of the movie? And if so, will that angry woman’s reaction be repeated on blogs and TV shows and newspapers across the country? The film will surely raise a ruckus about its perceived misogyny, but I think we could also be in for yet another boring violence in movies debate. It’s been a while since the last one.

* and neither, apparently, are Jessica Alba or Casey Affleck. I overheard two folks at Sundance HQ saying Affleck had called the movie ‘terrible,’ while reports are that Alba walked out of the premiere last night.