Central City, West Texas, 1952. Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Affleck) is a pillar of the community. Nobody would guess he's also a cunning, sadistic sociopath. But after the son of local magnate Chester Conway (Beatty) is found dead with the beaten body of a local prostitute (Alba), suspicion falls on Ford.
Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me is, like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, one of the great psycho-noir novels — explorations of America’s damaged post-War psyche in which the handsome, male protagonist is also a duplicitous sociopath. Ripley has entered the modern consciousness as a buff Matt Damon, and A Kiss Before Dying has been remade into insignificance, but Thompson’s novel has, aside from an irresolute 1976 Stacy Keach version, been quietly left alone. The reason is obvious. Fifty years on, this portrait of small-town America still shocks, its depiction of violence against women still deeply upsetting. What fearless fool would want to put this obscene America on screen in 2010? Hello, Michael Winterbottom.
No stranger to controversy (9 Songs) or critiques of Uncle Sam (The Road To Guantánamo), Winterbottom is also a director at his best when playing with narrative (24 Hour Party People, A Cock & Bull Story). As such, Killer is his dream package. Narrated by Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), The Killer Inside Me has to show the unreliable worldview of a psychopath while assuring us that his actions are impacting on a real, human world. This is partly achieved by an astonishing ensemble cast. An unsettling, otherworldly performer, Affleck is disturbingly absolute as Ford, possessing a cool-eyed contempt so profound it goes beyond mere Method, presenting the psychopath as reluctant actor, wearily hiding his disdain for a gullible audience. This would count for little if the characters in Ford’s world didn’t wholly convince, but from the moment we see him arrive at the house of hooker Joyce Lakeland and witness Jessica Alba’s sad, complex, beguiling performance, we know he is about to destroy something entirely real. Similarly, Kate Hudson as Ford’s girlfriend Amy Stanton goes beyond the tragic beauty of noir heroines, tapping into something profoundly moving. In this context, the much-discussed graphic violence seems horribly appropriate: this is not Kick-Ass-style blood-letting as entertainment, but brutal destruction of sympathetic life.
Faithful to the novel, Winterbottom fixes Ford’s role within post-War American capitalism, a black-gloved enforcer for the local police force, unions and construction baron Chester Conway (played by Ned Beatty as a possible father to that other dark god of American commerce, Mr. Jensen in Sidney Lumet’s Network). With his Southern manners, baby face and bland homilies, Ford is the grinning skull beneath “the nice, friendly and stupid” all-American small-town guy. He is a force of evil who predates Ed Gein/Norman Bates, even dwelling in a similar, carpenter’s Gothic white house, devoid of family yet haunted by childhood voices.
While Winterbottom has wisely shelved much of the novel’s psychological explanation, he offers glimpses of Ford’s “sickness” in a mise-en-scène continually at odds with Ford’s voiceover. Ford listens to his father’s classical records in the dark study, living out the respectable version of American patriarchy, but Winterbottom signposts the demons with flashes of too-bright light and hillbilly country on the radio, moving into a surrealism where plot developments contradict Ford’s statements and characters look terrified even when they’re insisting on Ford’s innocence. We’re heading towards some kind of crack-up, but when it comes it’s so at odds with the film’s established sense of realism, it’s likely to split the audience down the middle as much as those earlier scenes of violence. Some will feel compelled to see it again. Others will quietly whisper that once is enough.
As darkly disturbing as Jim Thompson's novel, this is a genuinely upsetting film that might also be Winterbottom's best. Not for everyone, but near-faultless all the same.