Casey Affleck has it in him to play the monster that author Jim Thompson created in his hard-boiled touchstone The Killer Inside Me. Affleck is handsome in a fashion that isn't entirely conventional; his eyes and nose seem a little close for comfort, and he usually seems to be nursing a not-entirely-tangible resentment. Affleck plays weird without playing "weird"; he doesn't assure you that he's playing a character and he's unlikeable without any show of it. Affleck's key role up until this point has been his killer in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and it's little wonder that he didn't walk off with the Oscar for such a plum role in such a critically lauded prestige film. He wasn't "creepy," he wasn't "clammy," he was creepy and clammy. This bottled rage and frustrated intelligence, this mixture of the off with the more traditional on that comes with being a charismatic leading man, is ideal for The Killer Inside Me's Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, a manipulative madman-in-stooge's clothing.
Affleck is more than fine here; he doesn't sentimentalize the character, but the movie is a decent-to-pretty-good effort that doesn't quite live up to him. The culprit is partially the source material, which is misleadingly difficult as fodder for adaptation. It would be tempting (as Samuel Fuller once said of another Thompson book) to approach the novel as the screenplay—as it is loaded with dialogue and incident and there isn't a bit of fat on it. The story, bracingly direct, is told in the first person, with Ford describing the scheme that he cooks up with the prostitute (here played by Jessica Alba) he's bedding (and beating) to get even with a corrupt local big shot (Ned Beatty) who had a role in the death of his adopted brother.
But the horror isn't in the nuts and bolts of the plot, which involves twists and betrayals typical to the genre even when Thompson wrote it; it's in the gradual revelation that Ford's actions have no motivation, that they are pretense for a craving for nastiness, a madness (tied, too explicitly, to family kinks) that will be indulged one way or another regardless of necessity or circumstance. The contrast of inner-psychopath with outer-buffoon is chilling, and the novel is blackly funny because it is clearly a parody of (particularly Southern) 1950s hypocrisies and reservations. Thompson's book is dicey for the movies though, which tend to, somewhat inevitably, boil everything down to incident that is largely cliché without the vividness of Ford's put-on and the slowly closing trap of his hidden hungers. (Mary Harron faced a similar issue with American Psycho, and she mostly licked it.)
Screenwriter John Curran and director Michael Winterbottom, again probably inevitably, tip us off to Ford's madness too early on. The evil isn't disconcertingly casual enough, as it was Stephen Frears's precise, disturbing, just-about-perfect movie of Thompson's The Grifters. Voiceover (taken from the book) doesn't contrast enough with Ford's actions, and so the duality is dulled, leaving the movie, after a promising opening, with little to build toward. The second half is somewhat redundant, amounting to an escalating collection of unpleasantries.
The Killer Inside Me is a well-made movie from clearly intelligent, well-meaning people. This film is determined not to louse up difficult, unwavering material (the trailer reminds us that Stanley Kubrick once said the novel was one of the most believable portraits of a criminally warped mind he'd ever encountered). But describing a film as "good intentioned" is usually a way of avoiding the fact that the filmmakers involved haven't connected to the material. This Killer Inside Me has no real madness—an issue whether you've read the book or not. Curran's determinedly pared script has a tendency to par the wrong material: When Ford lies to his fiancée (Kate Hudson) about their impending plans for marriage, we don't register the viciousness of the manipulation as strongly as we should, because much of her insecurity and, well, nagging has been trimmed.
Winterbottom, who has covered just about every genre save the horror film (and he can probably check that off now), is an accomplished stylist who sheds styles from film to film. The direction here, in mechanical terms, is impressive. The film is beautiful in a pulp-cover way that suits the material (wide desert compositions, knowingly lurid blocking with actors cropped close together), it's well paced, and the performers are effective, even Alba (who is consciously, and astutely, used; her desire to do a critically respected movie mirrors the character's own desire to be respected). But the obsessions—with sex, with violence, with violent sex—don't entirely register. (Take, for another example in the genre, Oliver Stone's U-Turn, an exhausting, frequently ridiculous film that nevertheless smells of actual insanity: You truly feel that Sean Penn will do anything, anything, to fuck Jennifer Lopez.) The Killer Inside Me is ultimately a more prestigious than usual noir with occasional S&M flourishes for a little extra kick; and maybe it's the prestige that's partially the problem—you know it can't hurt you. The same couldn't always be said of Thompson's work, or of Frear's The Grifters, or of the truly good thrillers in general.
IMAGE / SOUND:
The picture is gorgeous. The colors—the luscious pulp reds, the harsh whites, the desolate browns and blues—manage to be vibrant without distractingly courting iconography (unlike, say, Road to Perdition, a genre film enslaved by its self-consciously period look); proving that the usual fetishes of the one-last-scam movie (the unending cigarette smoke, the cowboy boots, the fan, the vintage cars, the pinup-girl lingerie) are always good for another go-around. The sound is just right: The somber score and the (occasionally too glib) 1950s song placements effectively set the mood, with the voices and movements of cops and various other encroaching menaces appropriately detectable in the background.
Not much. The trailer and a few making-of featurettes that are just quickie promotional pieces.
A beautiful, fitfully successful film with another compelling Casey Affleck performance.