Director: Michael Winterbottom
Stars: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson
***originally written 25 June 2010***
Odds on, if you’ve heard of Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Killer Inside Me, based on the book of the same name (which I have not read) by Jim Thompson, then you’ve heard that it’s courted controversy for it’s graphic scenes of violence. In Empire’s review they called it ‘a genuinely upsetting film’. They’re not wrong. But what (if any) are the merits of the violence, and what of the rest of the movie?
In brief then, Casey Affleck plays Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford in Central City, West Texas. He is seeing well-liked local girl Amy (Kate Hudson). He gets involved with a prostitute named Joyce (Jessica Alba). Their relationship is equal parts sex and violence, often intermingled. He tells her he loves her. We believe him. For reasons both convoluted and seemingly non-existent he sets her and the son of a local business luminary up as victims of a brutal double murder. And in a gruelingly extended sequence – the controversial one – he beats her to death. The remainder of the movie deals with Ford’s efforts to keep the terrible truth a secret. Unsurprisingly, the body count rises as his version of events unravels.
First let’s talk about the good. The opening titles are super-cool. The music throughout is deftly chosen, playful and emotive. The film looks great. Winterbottom’s filming is unfussy, but every scene feels well-framed. Stylish without being overtly stylised. The cast is uniformally excellent, with special props going to Casey Affleck (previously impressive in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Here, playing an entirely different Ford, he is a chilling revelation. He gives away nothing. Never breaking a sweat. Never raising his voice.
It’s an unusual and disturbing performance. In theory Ford should in fact be boring to watch. There’s nothing to him it seems. No layers, no hidden repressed anger. But somehow Affleck makes nothingness electric. Equally as good with a lot less screen time is Kate Hudson, who makes Amy one of the most heartbreakingly tragic women of recent cinema history, suspecting her man of terrible things, but doting on him nonetheless, for what else has she to do? Her downfall is arguably as shocking as the extended beating in the film’s first half hour.
There are some great supporting players in here too. Tom Bower’s sheriff is a warmer-hearted, less pessimistic brother to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from No Country For Old Men. Elias Koteas proves himself one of the best character actors around, and Bill Pullman turns up at the eleventh hour for a truly bizarre cameo, booming into the picture larger than life. But… but… but… despite these strong performances in the midst of professional, superior film-making something is amiss.
In the finest traditions of pulp fiction, the tale twists and turns around, but nothing feels particularly creative. Every move is bristling with deja vu. This may be an unfair criticism. Thompson’s novel was published in the 50s, and has become a staple of the genre, riffed on so many times that now the original has finally been brought to the screen, it’s shocks and surprises have become familiar. We’ve seen these tricks before, and so the narrative skirts a dangerous line between tired cliché and ridiculous contrivance. Ford gets far too lucky far too many times. In a memorable (unintentionally?) funny sequence, one of his victims gets away, yelling for help down the suburbs and main streets of the city, only to be ignored until a deputy guns him down, saving Ford the trouble. It seems preposterous.
Then there’s the ending, where motives seem to fall away and a twist brings a forgotten character back into the mix, upending much of what has been assumed by the viewer. Some will see this as reason to go back and see it again, others (myself included) will see it as one nutty detour too far.
Because of this lack of plausibility, the movie doesn’t particularly work as a psychological thriller either. Brief, cryptic flashbacks to Ford’s childhood allude to a number of dysfunctions, but they don’t explain who he is or why he kills. And ultimately the unbelievable nature of some of the story turns makes it harder to take Ford himself seriously, not helped by a somewhat smug and arguably pointless narration by Affleck.
In the end perhaps it was a simple lack of understanding on my part that made much of The Killer Inside Me hard to swallow. I never understood why Ford killed Joyce, or the son of the businessman, or – more than anyone – Amy, whose death seems so staggeringly pointless. If Ford cared so little about anything, why care enough to kill?
If this review is a little fragmented then it’s because my own feelings about the film are. Some of it is impressive, but some of it feels simply unjustified. Though deeply unpleasant, the depictions of violence against women in particular are handled well in the sense that they are deplorable and sickening. They should be. In this the film is a success. Nothing is glorified here. But what surrounds these difficult and upsetting moments is a mish-mash of story that leads you nowhere.
I’m reminded of Antichrist last year (though the two films are totally different). Take away the controversial sequences and what are you left with? Not as much as you’d like.