Jim Thompson was quite possibly the hardest of the hardboiled writers. He wrote like Raymond Chandler but with the cynical depravity of James Ellroy. The Killer Inside Me is one of his more infamous books. It's the story of a masochistic small-town sheriff who coldly sets a killing spree into motion in 1950s Texas. Thompson's downward slip into madness was so dark and unflinching in its portrayal of the homicidal impulse, many considered the novel "unfilmmable." The new adaptation by Michael Winterbottom is the second attempt to prove otherwise, and though I haven't seen the 1976 Burt Kennedy version, Winterbottom at least gets damn close before the Killer eludes his grasp.
Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, the polite and professional lawman whose upstanding outer persona is camouflage for how bent he really is on the inside. At the start of The Killer Inside Me, he is given the assignment of running a hooker out of town. Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) has recently set up shop in a house just off the main road, and she has turned the head of the son of the wealthiest man in the area. When she stands up to Lou, he knocks her around--something they both end up liking. Instead of sending Joyce packing, Lou starts making daily visits.
This situation can't stay as it is. Big daddy Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) doesn't want his boy duped by a whore, and he intends to pay Joyce off and send her into the good night. Lou is supposed to handle it, but he sets up a double-cross with Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson) to have the #1 son take papa's money and elope with Joyce. Except there's some triple and quadruple crosses going on here. Joyce seems to think there is a different plan, but Lou has his own. He beats the life out of the girl and shoots the guy to make it look like they did each other in. This could be revenge against Chester for his part in the death of Lou's half-brother, a convicted pederast; it could also just be because Lou is demented.
As these things go, what was meant to be a simple frame-up quickly turns convoluted and bodies start piling up. Lou is seeing local gal Amy (Kate Hudson) on the side, and she suspects something is eating at him. The town's head teamster (Elias Koteas) thinks that the killings stink and the foul odor is going to blow back on him. And the district attorney (Simon Baker) has a hunch Lou is lying, but his efforts to prove it go nowhere. Of course, that might be because he's a city boy. He just doesn't get the way things work in Texas.
Michael Winterbottom is a director known for his up-close-and-personal style, shooting quickly and efficiently with a verité, documentarian's aesthetic on films like A Mighty Heart and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. His regular cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind, and though the pair steady Zyskind's camera and light this film with a sheen befitting the period material, The Killer Inside Me loses none of the duo's trademark immediacy. The pair put the audience right in the story, taking Lou Ford's first-person narration, heard sparingly in voiceover, quite seriously. Casey Affleck is in just about every scene of this movie. To watch The Killer Inside Me is to walk with the murderer, to shadow his every step.
And that's great for the most part. Casey Affleck continues his streak of powerful performances, combining the twitchy sociopath he portrayed in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with the dedicated police officer of Gone Baby Gone and finding a place where their opposing morality overlaps. He has an off-balance confidence that is compelling. Even in the calmest scenes, we sense something is wrong. The wheels are turning in his head, but he's in control of when and how he is going to share what those wheels are generating. Very few of the other performers even get close to sharing the same space as Affleck. Maybe Elias Koteas as the skeevy union man or Tom Bower as Lou's boss; certainly not the women. Jessica Alba is okay, though she brings no real presence to what is an otherwise hollow role. Kate Hudson seems discombobulated in every scene she's in, like she's not quite sure if she's in the right movie. In both cases, better actresses could have anchored Lou's runaway sanity. Joyce should be sexy and impossible to deny; Amy should have the roots of a girl next door but ones that sink deep into the black soil of suburbia.
The script for The Killer Inside Me is by John Curran, best known for more stuffy literary adaptations like We Don't Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil (both of which he directed). Curran is as out of his element here as Alba and Hudson. He doesn't seem comfortable with the mechanics of genre, and there are a couple of huge blunders in Lou's plan that even TV's The Mentalist should have been able to spot. If the scheme doesn't hold up to the scrutiny of the audience, then how are we to believe the cops can't figure it out? Curran and Winterbottom lose more and more control of The Killer Inside Me the further Lou disappears into his own head, but the problems don't strike me as being an intentional mirror to the fiend's disintegrating mental health. It's everyone else's actions that seem disjointed, not Lou's. Lou actually has it together, and I have a feeling he's far less inscrutable on the printed page. In a book, we can genuinely get "inside" this kind of personality, we don't have to just follow him around.
I swear, there are scenes in this movie that don't take place in a car.
Much has been made of the violence in The Killer Inside Me, and I would be remiss if I didn't emphasize that it can be very harsh. Lou's crimes are brutal, and Winterbottom doesn't turn away when things go bad. Joyce's murder is particularly horrifying, and the extended sequence may be too much for some. It's comparable to, say, the heavier beatings in Fight Club, though far chillier in presentation. For as nasty as it can be, The Killer Inside Me also has a surprising streak of black comedy running throughout. The gruesome is matched by the grotesque, and there is some devilish laughter to be had at the slaughterhouse. I think Winterbottom stops short of making any of this too lurid, however; he doesn't linger on the carnage to cater to more prurient interests. He wants us to experience revulsion--including disgust with ourselves for giving in to such perverse pleasures.
Ironically, for as much as some will think Winterbottom shows too much in The Killer Inside Me, the film's major problem is that he doesn't actually show enough. As the movie wears on, it starts to feel like we are only getting the skeleton and none of the connective tissue. By the completely superfluous and overly showy appearance of Bill Pullman in the last twenty minutes, The Killer Inside Me has completely gone off the rails, leading to a head-scratching finale that doesn't leave us with enough information to be sure about what we really saw. I won't go too deep into my complaint for fear of giving too much away, but it would have been a good time for Winterbottom to peel away from what Lou Ford sees and let us take a gander at what everyone else is seeing instead.
Once it was all over, I was left wondering how much I really liked The Killer Inside Me. I enjoyed watching Casey Affleck, the filmmaking was assured and often effective, the basic plot moves quickly--but what about the holes in that plot? What about the fractures in the story's outline? What about the randomness of much of the final half hour? It's hard to tell which way to tip with a film this actively perplexing. I think it was ultimately successful enough to recommend it, but only just barely. Maybe it's better on a second viewing--a theory I may test eventually, but not with any great earnestness. I'll probably just read Thompson's novel instead.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.