By Don Simpson | July 25, 2010
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writers: Michael Winterbottom, John Curran (screenplay), Jim Thompson (novel)
Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Bill Pullman, Ned Beatty, Tom Bower, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Brent Briscoe, Matthew Maher, Liam Aiken, Jay R. Ferguson
Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) – the narrator, a blatantly unreliable one at that – is a soft-spoken and seemingly mild-mannered deputy sheriff in Central City, a small rural town in west Texas in the early 1950s. Lou doesn’t even carry a gun because crime in this oil boomtown is utterly nonexistent. He lives alone in the same home where he was raised. In the evenings, like a wayward European aristocrat, he tinkers around classically on his piano, reads books from his well-stocked library and listens to opera records. He has a beautiful girlfriend, his childhood sweetheart, named Amy (Kate Hudson) and has earned the utmost respect of his alcoholic boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower).
Lou is also a depraved sociopath who murders the people he loves, seemingly loving them more and more each and every bone-crushing blow. Yes, there is a killer inside Lou – hence the title of this film and Jim Thompson’s (arguably the bleakest and most relentlessly nihilistic of American pulp crime novelists) source novel which was originally published in 1952 – and whether or not he can control the killer is up for debate.
Lou receives an assignment to run a prostitute, Joyce (Jessica Alba), out of town because a powerful local developer, Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), is concerned about the influence she is having on his son, Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson). Joyce doesn’t want to leave. Lou spanks her. Joyce is turned on by the violence. They have sex. They develop a relationship. Ah, pulp fiction women…Then again, The Killer Inside Me is overflowing with pulp archetypes: Chester, the all-powerful construction behemoth; Elmer, Chester’s good for nothing son; Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas), the shady labor leader; Bob, the alcoholic sheriff; Johnnie (Liam Aiken), the juvenile delinquent; Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker), the slick and smart county attorney; Billy Boy Walker (Bill Pullman), the obnoxious lawyer. And only two of these townspeople are able to see the true evil hiding within Lou – Joe Rothman and Howard Hendricks.
Despite the film’s faithfulness to the source material, you really need to read Thompson’s book if you wish to fully understand what drives Lou to murder Joyce or that she is the dark force that unlocks Lou’s fury. (We are granted some glimpses of childhood sexual abuse suffered by Lou. His mother liked Lou to slap her, now Lou attracts women who like to be beaten. Lou also sexually abused a young girl, but his elder brother Mike took the blame.) My guess is that Director Michael Winterbottom does not want to make excuses for Lou – he does not want to blame Lou’s actions on others, especially not Joyce.
Casey Affleck is almost too convincing with his sweet, innocent and perfectly cool facade; his clean-cut appearance topped with his baby face; his mush-mouthed manner of speech, high-pitched and unsteady yet rough around the edges. (Affleck has a sort of James Dean meets young Marlon Brando thing going on.) Its incredibly shocking when the murder and mayhem begins and he’s the one doing the bludgeoning…even though we all know that he is guilty from the get-go (since Affleck is the “me” of the title). Affleck’s monologues are highlighted with beautiful bursts of Thompsonian prose, serving as a constant reminder of Thompson’s rhythmic – almost lyrical – way with words. (How can a man who speaks in such stunningly poetic verse be such a cold-hearted and ultra-violent murderer?)
That brings us to the elephant in the room – cinematic violence. Many critics are saying that The Killer Inside Me is mere pornographic wish-fulfillment for the male audience; but anyone who finds the violence in this movie to be sexually arousing is in dire need of serious psychiatric assistance. There is nothing glamorous or gratuitous about this violence; if anything, the violent scenes seem incredibly real. In making the violence so real, Winterbottom confronts the audience head-on with the abusive power relations between males and females – something that cinema often chooses to glamorize. By making Affleck’s character seem so innocent, The Killer Inside Me is exposing that even the most polite and soft-spoken west Texas young man can be prone to domestic abuse once the lights go down at night. (Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible aroused a similar debate, and I stand by my opinion that the violence was necessary to convey that film’s message. Though, to be honest, I skip past the rape scene when watching Irréversible on DVD – only because experiencing that scene once on the silver screen was more than enough for me.)
Winterbottom’s stylish retro-noir film adaptation is brilliantly atmospheric, I might even say technically flawless. According to Stanley Kubrick (who worked with Thompson on the script for The Killing), Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me was “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Kubrick had the same opinion of Winterbottom’s film. (I would rank The Killer Inside Me right up there with American Psycho.) This is by far the most authentic adaptation of Thompson’s material (I enjoyed The Grifters and The Getaway, but authentic adaptations they were not). It’s also worth mentioning that The Killer Inside Me was made into a film – a lackluster one at that – in 1976 by Burt Kennedy (Stacy Keach played Lou Ford).