Directed by Michael Winterbottom Starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson and Ned Beatty
Goes well with: Night of the Hunter, American Psycho, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Everybody says we've all become totally desensitized to violence because there's so much of it in films and on TV. I disagree. Oh, don't get me wrong—there's no shortage of violence out there, but if it isn't the bloodless, sanitized PG-13 kind, it's the sort of over-the-top hardcore ultra-violence that involves the slicing and dicing of human limbs. It's bloodletting that goes down easy because it never feels very real.
Now, the violence in The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's legendary pulp novel, is an exception. It's brutal and nasty, and it's usually toward women, which will likely earn the movie a misogynist label. But is it really misogynist, or is it simply staying true to Lou Ford, the demented sociopathic narrator of Thompson's book?
Casey Affleck plays Ford, a small-town deputy in West Texas in the early 1950s whose troubles begin when the sheriff (Tom Bower) sends him to check in on a local prostitute. She ends up being Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), and when she lashes out at him, instead of escorting her to the county line, Lou quickly finds himself in an obsessive sexual relationship with her, even though he's got a steady girl, Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). The relationship involves seriously rough sex, but does it also involve affection? You'd think so, until Lou decides that Joyce is the perfect vehicle to settle some old scores with his buddy Elmer Conway (Jay Ferguson), one of Joyce's clients, and Elmer's father, Chester (Ned Beatty).
Here's the thing—for his plan to work, Joyce has to die. So he explains the situation to her, puts on gloves and then beats her to an absolute pulp. It's horrific and visceral and very hard to watch, which is exactly what violence should be.
That's just the first in Lou's string of violent acts. You see, Lou's not the greatest criminal in the world. His plans are intricate but haphazardly executed, and it doesn't take long for him to be one of the prime suspects in the crime spree that's going on right under his own nose. Basically, he's just trying to cover his tracks, because Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker) is a big-city cop who immediately smells something fishy. As the pressure mounts, the only way our antihero can see to keep himself alive and out of jail is to make sure anyone who stands in his way is put down, and if some innocent bystanders fall along the way, well, so be it.
Winterbottom stays about as true to Thompson's novel as one could, but that doesn't make The Killer Inside Me as great as the source material. Affleck is an interesting choice to play Ford—he's not an imposing presence and he's a charmer, so when he gets violent, no one sees it coming. The movie's production values are terrific, too, but the screenplay could have used some trimming. In keeping this close to the novel, there are superfluous characters and situations that add more complexity and running time than is necessary.
The trickiest bit is this—if you're going to make a movie about a woman-hating sociopath that has painfully realistic violence, you have to give the audience something to care about. It's interesting to watch Ford twist in the wind as obstacles come at him from all directions, but it's hard not to feel as though Winterbottom takes the same detached approach to his subject as his subject does to those around him. And while the violence strikes a chord because it feels so realistic, it's also excruciating. I don't think it makes the film inherently misogynist, but it's a debatable point.
In the end, it's a well-made film, but it leaves you as cold as Affleck's dead shark eyes. In Thompson's book, the prose leapt off the pages to belt you across the chops. When the film version ends, you're just glad to have it behind you.