Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me begins with such a bouncy, stylized opening credit sequence that you might not be quite prepared for what follows. Based on the 1952 novel by Jim Thompson, it is a tough, hard-boiled little picture, cold and brutal and efficient. Its violence and pathology will, no doubt, disturb some audiences (and already has). But the fact of the matter is this: the craftsmanship on display is undeniable, and the black-hearted storytelling, true to the noir novel on which it's based, pulls in those with the stomach for it.
Casey Affleck stars as Lou Ford, a small-town Texas sheriff's deputy; he's lived there his whole life, and is comfortable there, mostly. "The trouble with growin' up in a small town is that everyone thinks they know who you are," he explains, in voice-over narration. One day, responding to a complaint, he meets someone who doesn't know him: Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who's just set up shop in town. He tells her to leave by sundown, and she responds by screaming and hitting him. After she wails on him a while, he hits back. It triggers something in both of them. They begin an intense, sadomasochistic relationship; he desires her, burns for her, even though he is officially dating town good-girl Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). That's when the noir set-up kicks in to full gear, as Joyce devises a plan that will make a stooge of a town rich boy who loves her, enabling them to swipe enough money to leave town together.
Until this point, the film functions in a slick and fairly straight-forward style; it's a little dark, yes, but its movie stars engaging in rough, sweaty eroticism, and are having fun smoking their cigarettes and driving their period cars. And then Lou reveals his true nature, in a sequence of shocking violence. The sheer blunt brutality of the scene is stunning, a sucker punch to the audience, a bombshell in the face of audience expectation and, frankly, acceptability--and it keeps going, on and on. What is Winterbottom up to here? We're gut-checked right out of the picture, and it takes a good couple of scenes to bring us back. It seems like a reckless move, but in retrospect, I think the director may have been going for a deliberately alienating effect--turning our impression of our lead character on its head with as much force as possible, and then rubbing our nose in it with those flashback shots, dripping with movie-star glam. Is it mean? Sure. Is it effective? You bet.
Once he's knocked us off balance, he's free to follow Thompson's snaky plot wherever it slithers. Lou's story is one of those tales where sins of the past are returned two-fold, and while the Freudian subtext (surely a daring ripple at the time of the novel's publication) is a touch overplayed, the period details are just right. The photography is lovingly rich, but it's not just designed to look like noir; it feels like it, unfolding with the same nightmare precision. As complications stack up around him, Lou keeps is cool, and Winterbottom does the same--he resists the temptation to overcook the scheme spinning out of control, relying instead on his measured, calculated direction.
There's a bit of narrative confusion--after we realize that Lou's plan is quite different from Joyce's, we're not sure, for too long, exactly what his plan is, so we're not sure, at key moments, if it's going wrong. (In retrospect, I'm still not sure exactly why he does what he does, aside from seeing if he can get away with it.) And some of the music choices are, frankly, a little too precious. But he pulls some terrific work out of his performers--Alba and Hudson are better than they've ever been, the invaluable Ned Beatty pops up with the voice and air of a man accustomed to running things, and Bill Pullman roars in at the eleventh hour for a brilliant character turn. Affleck's performance is dangerously good, all smoky, steely resolve and, later, gallows humor.
The Killer Inside Me comes apart a bit in the third act, primarily because it can't shock us anymore--though some appalling things happen (and the final moments are deliriously over the top), Winterbottom blows his load too early, so we're treading water with the later turns (there's no air left in us for the movie to take away). But it's still a bold and daring picture. Thompson's book was filmed once before in 1976 (apparently not successfully) and nearly remade several times since, and you can see how it would make the previously-attached actors and directors nervous, so dark and cold is the subject matter. Others might have shied away from that darkness; Winterbottom embraces it, holding his scenes, staging the deaths in what feels like agonizing slow motion. He's not fucking around--this is not one of these cutesy throwbacks, where someone throws some light through the blinds, has everyone smoke and talk dirty, and calls it noir. "You want noir?" he seems to be asking. "Here it is. Can you handle it?"