The latest movie from prolific but patchy Michael Winterbottom, The Killer Inside Me, is faithfully adapted from a novel by black-hearted pulp writer Jim Thompson. It features a stand-out performance by Casey Affleck as the cold-blooded psycho of the title, but with walk-outs and angry reactions at Sundance earlier this year (listen to them here), it is already the subject of some controversy for the vicious beatings meted out to its two female stars, most notably the extended pummelling of Jessica Alba’s sweet and pretty phisog.
- Director: Michael Winterbottom
- Writer: John Curran, based on the novel by Jim Thompson
- Producers: Chris Hanley, Bradford L. Schlei, Andrew Eaton
- Cinematography: Marcel Zyskind
- Cast: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Tom Bower, Elias Koteas, Ned Beatty, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman
Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, deputy sheriff in a small Texas town, who may appear to be a “boy scout with a badge” but is in reality a cold-blooded psychopath. His affair with sado-masochistic prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Alba) reawakens his murderous impulses and as he kills to revenge the cover-up of his brother’s murder by the local big-wig (Beatty), and kills again to cover his own tracks, the local union boss (Koteas) gets antsy and the DA (Baker) gets suspicious.
- Casey Affleck. He’s given a great deal more to imply than actually work with, and carries the film solidly. He perfectly captures the unknowable tone of the character with a combination of apparent good-nature, fine southern manners, and sudden cruelty to the eyes and mouth, a magnetic, unpredictable presence.
- Film style. This being Winterbottom, everything rattles along very comfortably, even if the jazzy opening credits are almost the best thing about the film; there’s a dismal reliance on TV-style close-ups and considerably too many montages of Affleck and Alba cavorting in golden sunlight, plus the irony of the wallpapered hillbilly bebop on the soundtrack gets old pretty quickly, and the rest of the score consists of tired, recycled string effects (low, ominous; high, anxious).
- Deliberate lack of psychology. This was not Thompson’s strong point, but Winterbottom pares it down even further than in the book, operating under the maxim that sometimes people do things “just because”. Despite the apparent self-reflection of the title and the first-person narration, Ford ponders not at all on his penchant for killing, and notwithstanding his fondness for violent sex, it is never clear whether he is simply capable of killing dispassionately, or whether he harbours a deep-seated urge. Hereditary explanation is mostly expunged, and the details of his revenge motive remain abstract. Alba’s character is even sketchier, conveniently fond of being knocked around, switching easily from having her buttocks beaten blue to melting in Ford’s arms. That Alba is a poor actress even in her most straightforward scenes is no help.
- The beatings. The outrage is basically justified. Ford’s male victims get a much quicker and easier time of it. His trickiest crime, hanging a boy in his jail cell, takes place entirely off screen, and we see nothing of the effect of his pummeling a blackmailing drunk. By contrast, Alba’s face is gloatingly shown in various stages on the way to becoming a bloody pulp, and the camera remains uncomfortably on Hudson’s grotesquely twitching body (her best bit of acting, with her dress over her face). Even if both women take it without a hint of resistance, these are still valid moments; but in the context, such a lack of equal opportunities viciousness on the part of the film-makers has the stench of misogyny, be it conscious or not.
It’s perfectly watchable, the Alba beating aside, thanks to the slick style and Affleck’s magnetic performance, but was never going to satisfactory. The attempt to avoid psychologising in a first-person-driven film about a serial killer seems bold and admirable, but is ultimately foolhardy. Affleck makes him intriguing, but cannot rescue Ford from borderline two-dimensionality (and how come he has a beautifully furnished library in which he listens to Strauss and practices calculus?) The film is a portrait without insight, a slick entertainment no better than its over-rated source, and more dangerously than on the page, disturbingly more interested in the acts of violence themselves than in their causes and implications.
The Killer Inside Me is released in New York on June 18 and simultaneously in Los Angeles and VOD on June 25.