A film review by Craig J. Koban October 8, 2010

THE KILLER INSIDE ME jj

2010, R, 109 mins.

 

Casey Affleck: Lou Ford / Kate Hudson: Amy Stanton / Jessica Alba: Joyce Lakeland / Ned Beatty: Chester Conway / Elias Koteas: Joe Rothman / Simon Baker: Howard Hendricks

Directed by Michael Winterbottom / Written by John Curran, based on the novel by Jim Thompson

THE KILLER INSIDE contains a quietly frightening and grotesque performance by Casey Affleck, whom has proven here Ė as he did with  critical lauded turns in GONE BABY GONE and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD Ė that he has emerged from the shadow of his big brother Ben as one of the more intuitive and nuanced character actors working today.  His previous two films chiefly demonstrated how he could unassumingly inhabit the minds of his deeply flawed and inwardly tortured characters, and he has done so by underplaying his roles for just the right unnerving effect.  This, in turn, makes him that much more of a compelling performer.

He once again reveals how completely he can nonchalantly submerge himself into a twisted and depraved role in THE KILLER INSIDE ME, in which he plays a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in small Texas town in the 1950ís.  Outwardly, he appears to be a prototypical everyman law enforcer: modestly handsome, disarmingly charming, soft spoken and polite, and steadfastly loyal to his profession.  All of that, alas, is a false faÁade, because what lurks beneath this congenial southern gentleman is a vindictive, cunning, sadomasochistic, and totally immoral sociopath.  

A lesser actor would not have been able to play such a challenging role of paradox, but Affleck Ė with his creepy, mild-mannered enunciation, sweetly baby faced mug, and stone cold and penetrating stare Ė creates a terrifying portrayal of evil.  Itís all the more terrifying because he does not tip off the audience that he is evil early on in the film: Ford is someone that occupies coffee shops, street corners, and offices as a man of moral fiber, but what people donít know is that a beast resides within that has no barometer of good and evil at all.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME is on highly fertile and strong ground with Affleck at the helm: heís such a magnetic and haunting screen presence here, in an under-the-radar kind of way.  The film, of course, is based on the 1952 novel of the same name by Jim Thompson, which has been described as one of the most brutally uncompromising crime works of its time.    Perhaps this is why so many staled attempts have occurred to adapt it to the big screen (a 1956 effort with Marlon Brando and Marylyn Monroe was attempted, followed by a 1976 incarnation that did see the light of day, later followed by subsequent failed endeavors in the 1980ís and 1990ís).  The inherent violence and overall degeneracy of the filmís main character is its most unsettling element, which makes it a tough sell for any audience, contemporary or not.

This new film adaptation does something entirely correct: it centers us within Fordís perverse mindset, who also serves as not only the narrator for the story, but also as a commentator on his own profoundly dark urges and feelings.  The film begins discreetly, showing Ford at his most perfunctory at his job: he is liked and appreciated by the townsfolk of Central City, not to mention that his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (a very decent Tom Bowers) treats him like a son.  However, what they all donít see is that Ford is cold, ruthless, and mentally deranged.  There are hints as to why he is so demonic: it might have something to do with multiple personality disorder, or maybe more with sexual deviancy during his childhood, or a mother that was anything but motherly to him.  Despite all of this, Ford has an unhealthy penchant for killing.

His thirst for blood reaches a climax when Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) asks Ford to chase away a whore named Joyce (Jessica Alba, not bad, but more than a bit out of her element here) that has formed ties with his son.  Ford sees multiple opportunities to both make some quick money and to settle an old score that he has with Conway.  His first meeting with Joyce does not go well: she begins to slap and beat him after he informs her to leave, after which he forcibly grabs her and begins to mercilessly whip her bare behind with his belt strap.  Creepily enough, both of them like the exchange (although the script never really fully explains why Joyce enjoys being slashed to a purplish pulp) and begin a sexual fling involving bondage and all sorts of sordid games.

One night Ford finalizes his wicked plan: He maliciously beats Joyce to death with his fists and when Conwayís son enters he shoots him with Joyceís gun, hoping to make it look like a loverís spat between the pair gone horribly afoul.  Initially, Fordís plan is well executed as he builds a solid alibi for himself while plausibly making it appear that ample motives by Joyce and her lover were the root causes.  He also maintains a phony relationship with Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson, straining a bit to find a path for her role) to keep his cover.  However, forces conspire to reveal Ford for the killer he is:  A labor leader (a rock solid Elias Koteas) and a county attorney (Simon Baker) have specific reasons to suspect Ford as the guilty man, and as the local authorities begin to dissect the innocence of Ford the more he descends into madness to the point where the only way out is to frame and kill more people at the same time.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME was directed by Michael Winterbottom, the highly prolific and versatile English filmmaker, and he frames the film with stylish and beautifully composed images (complimented greatly by Marcel Zyskindís lush and crisp cinematography).  Winterbottom also keeps the filmís pacing effectively low key, which has the effect of keeping unsuspecting viewers off center, especially when the film takes decidedly morbid detours into Fordís disturbingly murderous psyche.  And, as stated, we also have Affleckís hypnotizing and chilling performance as Ford, and it's noteworthy that Winterbottom and Affleck present this man Ė like most killers Ė as a person that does not understand that heís evil or has committed any wrongdoing.  Ford has no regrets for his actions, nor does he exhibit any control over them.  Heís just a pathetic creature  without a conscience.

Despite my aforementioned praise, I nonetheless had some real issues with THE KILLER INSIDE OF ME that kept me at a real distance with the material; the film is both enthralling and exasperating.  Firstly, many critics have called the film a rich film noir, but Winterbottom does not shoot it as a noir at all:  Fordís world is shot with brightly lit exteriors and bright, sun-drenched compositions, which is far from the shadowy milieu of classic noir.  Secondly, Winterbottomís tonal choices are far, far too whimsical and playful at times considering the cynical corruption and dreariness of the material.  Some of his choices Ė like using an offbeat musical score and lively period songs to comment on the action Ė makes it feel more like he is ironically commenting on the filmís psychopathic character as opposed to simply given us an unfiltered portal into his stomach-churning methodology.   Thirdly, Winterbottomís attempts to flesh out the psychological rationale of Fordís mental state is never fully or satisfactorily developed: itís hinted at here and there, but only haphazardly.

Something also needs to be mentioned about the wanton, brutal violence in the film.  THE KILLER INSIDE OF ME became a lightning rod of heated controversy earlier this year, especially for its infamous scene where Ford smashes his fist over and over and over again into Joyceís face in savagely unflinching detail.  On one hand, Winterbottom, I think, is trying to dissect movie violence away from its glamorized extremes and show it at its most nauseating and real.  Yet, consider this: Fordís victims are both men and women, but Winterbottom seems to display a distressing level of focus on showing Ė in horrifically graphic and sustained detail Ė the attacks on the women, but when it comes to his male victims, most of their fates are shown off camera.  Compounding this is the fact that the female victims Ė played by Alba and Hudson Ė are paper thin personas in the story that are not developed further beyond the point of being figures for Ford to tortuously abuse.

Is Winterbottom being excessively and cheaply exploitative here?  I donít think that his intentions were to do so, but the resulting film has the unintentional side effect of making it come off as just that.  I have never been a prude when it comes to film violence and have often staunchly defended its place, but the prolonged, in-your-face barbarism perpetrated towards women in THE KILLER INSIDE ME seems somewhat gratuitous, unnecessary, and sensationalistic in hindsight.  Thatís not the singular problem with this adaptation, though, especially if you consider that, as previously stated, itís a film noir thatís not presented as noir, is too whimsical for its own good at times, and has too many undeveloped characters (Bill Pullman shows up and then abruptly leaves at one point) and subplots involving union problems, Fordís childhood, and his intervention in one young ladís legal troubles that do not culminate in a believable manner at all.  What we are left with is a film of polarizing contradictions:  Winterbottom is a great director (see 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, A MIGHTY HEART and TRISTRAM SHANDY A COCK AND BULL STORY) and has made a great looking film, not to mention that Affleck gives an Oscar worthy turn.  Lamentably, thatís not enough to elevate THE KILLER INSIDE ME above a work thatís fiendishly inconsistent, if not more than a bit off-putting at times considering the obvious talent on display.

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