Director Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me is many things. It’s a beautifully shot glimpse of how sordid small-town life can be. It’s an unflinching look into the mind of a killer. It’s a brutal and uncomfortable display of violence, particularly against women. It’s an example of absolutely brilliant acting, and it’s an incredible movie, but often one to be endured rather than enjoyed. I’ll warn you that it’s a difficult film to review without revealing some spoilers, but most of what will be spoiled takes place in the first act of the film.
The Killer Inside Me, based on the 1952 noir novel by Jim Thompson, is about Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a quite, unassuming, friendly guy who helps his friends, has a lovely girlfriend, Amy (Kate Hudson), and is a complete, unrepentant psychopath. Of course, no one knows this, although he’s well aware of it. Ford is a narcissistic, egomaniacal, cold-blooded killer, whose past is littered with dirty, bloody secrets. One day his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower) sends him to gently run a newly-relocated prostitute out of town. Joyce (Jessica Alba), the lady in question, mocks and spurns Ford, bringing the beast out of him — and thus a strange, twisted bond is formed, based on a love of S & M and really rough sex. Joyce is strangely attracted to the devil that squirms beneath Ford’s skin, and Ford is provided an outlet for some of his baser appetites.
Of course, things come to a head when the town magnate, Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), becomes victim to a blackmail scheme by Ford and Joyce. The payoff goes bad, and Ford, in an effort to keep his hands clean, goes on a violent rampage that leaves two people very, very dead. This turn of events spirals into a series of more and more crimes that Ford commits to cover his tracks, determined to remove all traces of criminality that could lead back to him. Along the way, he has to deal with a crooked union boss (Elias Koteas) who sees through his act, a dogged county attorney seeking the truth and with his own suspicions (Simon Baker), and an itinerant hobo who’s smarter than he appears.
It’s all gloriously dark, pulpy stuff, mixed with a healthy dose of cops and killers, dames and molls and back-alley deals. Set in the ’50s, Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart) successfully recreates that bucolic, small-town-from-another-era feel, creating a dry, dusty landscape that seems as harsh and unforgiving as the film’s subject matter. Full of tight close-ups of its characters and wide shots of the barren-looking landscape, it’s a film that truly captures the atmosphere of its time and place.
The acting is all top-notch, which in the cases of Alba and Hudson came as a massive surprise. Affleck had already proven his mettle in Gone, Baby, Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and his range and ability is only magnified here. Affleck’s unassuming and almost-shy good looks are actually perfect for the part of Ford in terms of appearance, but it’s when he shows the character’s darker side that you can really see how excellent an actor he really is. Ford’s not a raving lunatic — he’s not prone to lengthy monologues on the nature of evil, or self-exploration of why he is what he is. Even his narrative inner monologues are done in calm, measured tones. He clearly understands what he’s doing, and makes no attempt to explain it to the viewer. Instead, you’re left to simply accept what he is — a completely unscrupulous sociopath with a taste for sex and violence and absolutely no conscience. It is totally chilling to watch the switch flip, not because he suddenly transforms into some demon of rage, but because… nothing really changes. He doesn’t start yelling, spittle flying. Instead, he simply steadily and methodically destroys everything in his path. It’s that very lack of atavistic fury that makes it all the more disturbing.
Of course, therein lies the biggest criticism of the film, and discussion of it is inescapable. The film is a violent one, to be sure, but not overwhelmingly so. It doesn’t have prolonged gunfights or action scenes. But when it does become violent, it’s harsh and uncomfortable — mainly because the worst of the violence is inflicted on women. This (and here’s the spoiler-y part) is most painfully depicted in the film’s first 20 or so minutes, when Ford slowly, calculatedly, and mercilessly beats Joyce to death. It’s a decidedly unpleasant scene that the presenter at IFFB actually warned us about, and that several people could not watch. It’s a prolonged series of shots where punch after punch after punch lands, and her face is slowly reduced to so much bloody, devastated meat as she begs for mercy. The second of such scenes, towards the film’s end, is also inflicted on a woman, and while it’s not quite as brutal, it’s hard to watch for different reasons.
I’m not sure where I stand on the debate as to how “necessary” such scenes are. Yes, it is unquestionably brutal and misogynistic, but is that a reflection of the writer (John Curran wrote the screenplay), the filmmaker, or simply a depiction of the character himself? Jim Thompson’s novels frequently have a similar disdain for women, an almost Peckinpah-esque misogynistic bent to them. Winterbottom, in filming The Killer Inside Me, has successfully translated that feeling on the screen — it’s a near-perfect adaptation of the mood and flavor of the novel. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. I know that I didn’t like watching it, but I also know that by filming those scenes with such viciousness, yet also with an almost clinical detachment, Winterbottom removes any sense of anti-heroism from the character, forcing you to recognize what an unsympathetic monster he is. You don’t root for Lou Ford. You can’t. He’s not even a charismatic psycho like Hannibal Lecter, because you know all too well what goes on in his mind. Lou Ford has a hornet’s nest where his heart should be, and a dark black void in his head. He’s amusing in parts, but never truly likable.
That bit of distinct unpleasantness aside, it’s a stellar film. Affleck is joined by an outstanding supporting cast. particularly Elias Koteas as the cleverly slimy Joe Rothman and a surprising Simon Baker (who previously has never really impressed me). Alba and Hudson perform their roles gamely, but they don’t have much to work with. They’re simplistic depictions based on Thompson’s rote characterizations of women. Joyce is the damaged whore, Amy is the nice but occasionally shrill virginal sweetheart. That said, despite those oversimplified personae, they both do very good work with what they’re given. The writing is excellent, with strong dialogue and impressive cinematography. And while the finale is a bit overdone, I found it to be strangely satisfying.
The Killer Inside Me is one of the more troubled productions of recent history, going through several directors and producers and actors (it was also previously made into a film in 1976 — another excellent version, starring Stacey Keach and directed by
Burt Kennedy). Once Winterbottom got to work on it, it was then plagued by the fact that no one wanted to touch it due to its brutality, and a distributor couldn’t be found. As of right now, it’s slated for a limited release in June 2010, though I don’t know what it will eventually be rated. Regardless of all of that, it’s a superb film, a harshly immersive experience that you truly do need to see to believe. Affleck solidifies his status as one of the best actors working today, and Winterbottom creates something that, while controversial and at times disturbing, nevertheless contains some truly exceptional film-making.
Author’s note: I realize that there is some misdirection in this review, which was done to avoid even further spoilers. Please try to be mindful of that in the comments if you’ve seen the movie.
This review was originally published during the Independent Film Festival of Boston. The movie is being released on VOD and in select cities today.