As you may already know, The Killer Inside Me, a sweat-and-sunshine adaptation of the 1952 Jim Thompson pulp novel in which a sociopathic deputy sheriff wreaks havoc in a West Texas town, has drawn attention and condemnation for the brutality of two scenes depicting murderous attacks on women. Indeed, director Michael Winterbottom mercilessly contemplates the methodical, coal-hearted Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) as he uses fists and feet to pummel his victims: blows thud sickeningly, screams turn to gurgled pleas, a pool of urine spreads from the heap of a prone body. As Affleck’s baby face contorts in unhinged mania, the bloody prosthetics of the effects department make it hard to look at the screen.
These horrific episodes are irony-free—and hence a welcome corrective to the near-monopoly of just-for-fun mayhem that makes contemporary fanboys giddy, e.g., roasting a throng of Nazis in a burning theater, and dates back at least to Anthony Hopkins’s cannibalistic camping for awards and popular approval. When people gasp and cringe in their seats at Lou Ford’s ferocious assaults, then sermonize about artistic irresponsibility or misogyny, their outrage seems to be lit by the switch from the distanced, jokey diet of filmic carnage to which they’ve grown accustomed. In attempting to represent Thompson’s morbidly economical prose (“It was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once”) in concrete dramatic terms, any less blunt treatment of Lou’s sadism would be open to charges of soft-pedaling his venality. Since the character’s mocking of his fellow citizens of Central City with deadpan aphorisms like “Haste makes waste”—bullshitting the rubes—could endear him to some indie-film viewers on the coasts, a more distanced rendering of his crimes could result in one more cool American Psycho–style antihero. The tone is misogynistic and brutal, because at its most ambitious this Killer Inside Me is a film by Lou Ford, just as the universe in the first-person novel exists between his ears. More’s the pity that jack-of-all-genres Winterbottom, after communicating his seriousness with the uncompromising killings, can’t bring such power consistently to the dark, hell-bound plot.
Lou, a hard-working lawman judged “not twisted enough” to be involved in the nasty deeds that consume Central City, finds himself juggling the erotic attentions of recently arrived, pistol-packing prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba) and his credulous longtime girlfriend, Amy (Kate Hudson), neither of whom know that beyond gratifying their fetish for bruising spankings and other rough play, he cavorted as a boy with his physician-father’s masochistic housekeeper, and pinned the blame for his molestation of a five-year-old girl on his foster brother. When the town’s construction baron (Ned Beatty), believed to have staged the “accidental” death of Lou’s brother on a job site, enmeshes him in a plot to buy off Joyce from dallying with the builder’s heir, Lou engineers a putative murder-suicide, and goes on dirtying his hands as suspicion and blackmail come a-calling on his front porch.
“Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill themselves?” Thompson has Lou lament, but Winterbottom wisely scales down the deputy’s hidden highbrow side from the book, where Lou uses his reading of Dad’s medical library to diagnose himself with dementia praecox, a flourish that’s on the edge of archness even in the writer’s wild milieu. (Affleck does haltingly plunk out some Mozart on the piano, and Mahler alternates with western swing on the soundtrack.) But the other characters, aside from Hudson’s moody and marriage-minded sweetheart, recede on the screen even more than they should in Lou’s consciousness; in their one-on-one scenes with Affleck, old reliables like Beatty and Elias Koteas (as an anxious union chief) are let down by the pacing and screenwriter John Curran’s excessive fidelity to Thompson’s dialogue. The result isn’t drama so much as a waking nightmare of play-acting and predestined doom.
Still, Affleck, after assaying the layers of sniveling celebrity-killer in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, executes an uncondescending, chilling turn as the far more predatory, damaged Lou. His lanky lawman’s walk, bursts of self-deprecation, and strenuous bedroom scenes with Hudson and Alba are all of a piece, as is Lou’s false confidence that he’s smarter than his antagonists. “I got a foot on both sides o’ the fence,” he confides to a young jailbird unfortunate enough to earn his confidence (along with another staged suicide), and Affleck walks the line with nerve-jangling commitment, until Winterbottom fumbles the climax’s fiery liebestod with a bit of fourth-wall breaking and flippantly scoring the coda with Spade Cooley’s “Shame on You.” That’s a miscalculation worthy of Tarantino.