by Tony Dayoub
Filmed once before in the seventies with the more imposing Stacy Keach in the role, Michael Winterbottom's new version of Jim Thompson's novel, The Killer Inside Me, feels creepier because of the casting of the relatively slight and soft-spoken Casey Affleck as the sociopathic Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. True, the vacant-eyed Affleck played a murderer pretty effectively before as Robert Ford (no relation) in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). That film's killer, a weak-willed worm with a serious case of hero envy, is driven by emotional problems which are quite easy to quantify. What distinguishes Lou Ford is the lack of emotion behind his congenial nature. This is the coldest nice guy in cinema since Martin Sheen's skinny Kit in Badlands (1973).
Ford's psychosis is very specifically addressed towards women. As a child, Ford assaulted a little girl. Later, a formative sexual relationship with a babysitter which involved sado-masochistic spanking and rough play excited his sick tendencies. A chance police encounter with Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who admits enjoying violence in her sex, leads to a relationship which unlocks his monstrous side. He conspires with her to seek retribution on a town bigwig (Ned Beatty) that has done them both wrong, even while coming home to lead a serene life with his cute straight-laced fiancee, Amy (Kate Hudson). So when these women cross an invisible line Ford has established only in his mind—whether its Lakeland's transgression from being his lover to being the slutty bait in their blackmail scheme, or his polluted perception of Amy after finding some photographs of her tied up and in flagrante—his fatal reaction is swift, complete, and not just a little bit directed at the weak female side of his own character.
While he viciously pounds Lakeland over and over again in an unflinching, disturbing scene where Alba's gorgeous face is reduced to a twisted mass of bloody flesh, the unfeeling deputy reassures her, whispering, "I love you. I love you," as she falls into a coma. This sickening scene and a few others bolster some of the attacks which accuse The Killer Inside Me of glorifying violence against women. But in truth, Ford's psychosexual motivations justify Winterbottom's approach to the violent scenes. The camera may linger much longer to witness Ford's assaults against females than it does when he dispatches men. But the relative expediency in which Ford eliminates male victims betrays his lack of emotional involvement with them. Their quick termination are his personal self-assurance that these particular executions are simply "business, not personal," to paraphrase another movie monster.
Obviously, The Killer Inside Me works best as a character study. Affleck gives one more among a recent line of fine performances, behaving one way publicly while he privately succumbs to his darker impulses. Winterbottom is unafraid to expose the sordid details of Thompson's violent story. This is the first relatively mainstream American movie in recent memory which doesn't shy away from nudity, graphic violence, and whatever else is necessary to carry on its exploration of its adult themes, a welcome change to some of the half-assed puritanical suspense thrillers which never really pay off in any real, emotional way.
As a tense film noir, The Killer Inside Me's footing is less sure, its simply plotted tension often deflated by lengthy breaks for confusing plot explanation. One character, played by the otherwise excellent Elias Koteas, could be completely eliminated from the story without being missed. Instead he serves as a vague source of menace and exposition for both Ford and the audience, so much so that he's never onscreen with any other character in the piece. His involvement also spurs the film's atrocious, surrealistic ending, a literal conflagration fueled by someone's inclination to tie up all the loose ends a little too neatly for a movie which best dwells in the unknowable.
Even a full-length feature film can't adequately explain the glacial calm which Ford displays as he brutally murders his victims. The Killer Inside Me lays out the facts about Ford, allows you to see the world through his eyes, makes you an uncomfortable participant in his fetishistic sexual encounters, and won't let you leave when he indulges in his most savage tendencies. But still, you don't come any closer to understanding Ford, and maybe that's a good thing.