“The Killer Inside Me” is a faithful but only partly satisfying adaptation of Jim Thompson’s insidiously great 1952 pulp crime novel. Making his first fully American dramatic feature, prolific and eclectic Brit director Michael Winterbottom scrupulously heeds the key narrative and character points of the juicy source material but comes up short in terms of tension, stylistic flair and density of detail, resulting in a film that should but doesn’t get under your skin and give you the creeps. Although the extreme brutality toward women will raise hackles, the pic’s sensationalistic aspects, cast and genre appeal suggest moderate marketability in the U.S. and probably better prospects internationally.
Filmed once before in a scarcely seen 1976 version directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Stacy Keach, Thompson’s warped first-person tome about a homicidal Texas lawman had a famous early fan in Stanley Kubrick, who hired the novelist to work on his first two significant pictures, “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory.”
The tone of Winterbottom’s film, which is set in the period and was lensed in Oklahoma (Thompson’s home state) and New Mexico, is set by the raspy high timbre of Casey Affleck’s voice, which dominates through his abundant dialogue and frequent narration.
Affleck’s deputy sheriff Lou Ford of Central City in West Texas is sure of himself, although not so prone to cheshire cat grinning as the man in the novel. Good looking and secretly intellectual after a fashion (he plays opera and reads his late doctor father’s weighty tomes when no one else is around), he’s got a gift for lazy gab and is involved with a woman, the overly eager Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), from one of the town’s best families.
Ordered by his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower), to evict a high-end prostitute from her house outside of town because she’s ensnared the ne’er-do-well son of the town’s preeminent businessman, Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), Lou finds it impossible to follow orders once he lays eyes on her. Not only is Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) a stunner, but she initiates some rough stuff that not only arouses Lou in a predictable way but reawakens some long-buried psychopathic instincts in him.
Pic’s most brutal and bound-to-be controversial scene arrives 25 minutes in. Despite Joyce being everything he always might have dreamed of (and, indeed, obsessively will continue to dream of), Lou decides he must kill her along with Conway’s son Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson), partly to settle an old score but also because the virulent urge “inside” has come to the fore. With the parting words, “I love you. Goodbye,” he pummels Joyce to the proverbial pulp, her face a disfigured mush of flesh and blood by the time he’s done, and shoots Elmer when he shows up, then places the gun in Joyce’s limp hand to redirect the blame.
Winterbottom’s presentation of the violence is blunt, direct and vivid enough to inflict winces, if not actual pain, on the audience; some will no doubt look away. Flashback images indicate the youthful experiences that made Lou end up the way he did, but it’s not the film’s intent to be overly psychoanalytical. Some experiences are formative, and this is certainly true for Lou when it comes to sex and violence.
Lou thinks he so cleanly pulled off the homicides that no one could ever stick them on him, but some remain suspicious, notably old man Conway; a local union leader (Elias Koteas) who knows a deep secret about Lou’s past, and the county attorney (Simon Baker). In an especially gamey moment, Amy has her own way of discovering that her boyfriend has been intimate with Joyce on the night of the murders. But more people die before the moment of reckoning arrives for Lou,
Working from John Curran’s efficient script, Winterbottom cogently unfurls the sordid narrative, although, at least at the screening caught, some of the dialogue was unintelligible, either due to some mumble or slurred dialogue and/or undue amplification. Still, when compared with the many films noir made during the period when the novel was written, this “Killer” lacks punch, dynamism and genuinely seedy atmosphere; at the same time, it falls short of the sort of the rich texture, moodiness and interconnectedness of production values that mark the best contemporary period crime films; lensing is pretty flat, the colors unvibrant. Winterbottom tells the story, but doesn’t bring much more to the table.
The thesps generally acquit themselves well. Many have said that Robert Mitchum would have been the ideal Lou Ford back in the day, but Affleck (playing his second consecutive killer named Ford, after co-starring in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), proves a fine choice, his cracking voice and boyish look providing an intriguing contrast to the man’s rapacious ways. Alba and Hudson are mostly called upon to get repeatedly ravished and bloodied, while pros such as Beatty, Koteas, Baker, Bower and late-arriving Bill Pullman add welcome seasoning.