Writing in 1998 about the early films of British director Michael Winterbottom, critic Michael Atkinson described the filmmaker's work as being "shot and cut like a heart attack." He was referring to the "acidic, uncompromising" quality he found in Butterfly Kiss, Jude, and Welcome to Sarajevo, which he claimed made these exercises in overfamiliar genres "seem so new you feel as if you're inventing them with your eyes, right now." While, in the decade-plus since Atkinson's article appeared, Winterbottom has continued to make startling, inventive films that often rethink familiar forms, there's little in that critic's evaluation that one could meaningfully apply to the director's latest effort, The Killer Inside Me. Adapting Jim Thompson's novel into a stylish if conventionally minded genre piece, Winterbottom's period psychological thriller features two scenes of startling violence, but they're far more unpleasant than shocking, light years from the meaningful jolts that enliven the best of his work.
Set in a lovingly recreated dusty Texas oil town in the 1950s, the film stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a seemingly mild mannered deputy sheriff who, in the film's opening, visits the house of prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) in order to force her out of town. In our first clue that something more sinister lurks under Ford's aw-shucks exterior, rather than run her out, he yanks off her pants and whips her repeatedly on the ass with his belt. Later, the two become lovers and team up to double-cross a third lover against whom Ford holds a grudge. But when the moment arrives, Ford double-crosses Joyce instead, brutally punching her in the kisser until she lies on the verge of death and her face resembles, in the words of one detective, "chewed meat, hamburger."
In the course of Winterbottom's film, there're old scores to settle and spanking fetishes aplenty, the former gradually revealed and the latter eventually explained through flashbacks to Ford's childhood. But much of the rest of the movie has a static time-marking quality, as we wait for the authorities to close in on Ford, or at least for him to commit another brutal murder or assault, which at long last he does, decking his fiancée repeatedly in the stomach. Even scenes that seem like they couldn't fail to build tension as when a police detective questions Ford, slowly revealing information that implies the latter's guilt, play surprisingly slack, the casual unfolding of a mere perfunctory exchange.
Instead of relying on taut narrative as the film's driving force, Winterbottom calls instead on Affleck's ability to project both his character's innocent exterior and increasingly psychotic tendencies, but as the character becomes more and more unhinged, Affleck resorts too frequently to simply flashing an idiot grin while maintaining his deadpan delivery, resulting in a performance more tiresome than terrifying. But Affleck's pretty much the whole show here; apart, that is, from the dusty byways, oil rigs, and suburban lawns of 1950s Texas that Winterbottom precisely recaptures and which mark his film as being, if nothing else, a thoroughly stylish undertaking, albeit one that, extreme bursts of violence aside, and in contrast to such recent vital fare from the director as The Road to Guantanamo, need not cause his viewers any undue trouble. Nor is it likely to provide them with much in the way of pleasure, due or otherwise.
The Killer Inside Me will play on April 27, 29, and 30 as part of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.