A prodigious filmmaker in both talent and output, Michael Winterbottom, whose diverse portfolio includes Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People and A Mighty Heart, tries his hand at American pulp with an adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. The tale of a 1950s era Texas deputy sheriff, whose cornball speech and mild manner hide a startling psychosis, represents a rare misfire for the director. Thompson's brutality and misogyny are on full display, but it is too slick, there is little suspense or energy, and the whole affair has a curiously embalmed quality. Too laconic for crime drama and thriller fans and too visceral for the squeamish, the only reliable audiences for this film are Winterbottom and Thompson completists.
Sent to chase prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town, Deputy Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) instead embarks on a sadomasochistic affair with her and eventually pulls her into a revenge plot against Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), the local construction magnate that he holds responsible for his older brother's death. Bodies begin to accrue around Ford, pushing his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower), to alcoholism and raising the suspicions of District Attorney Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker). Ford remains unflappable, narrating his story in voiceover, his easygoing tone a counterpoint to his growing madness. He tries to stay several steps ahead of the growing investigation, proposing to girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) when she suspects him of having an affair, visiting his friend Johnnie Pappas (Liam Aiken) in jail to ensure certain dots are never connected and devising a frame to fit a bum (Brent Briscoe) who knows too much about Ford's business.
To Winterbottom's credit, he cast the film well across the board and deserves special praise for casting Affleck in the lead. With his soft-spoken, sometimes wheedling, sometimes whiny voice; his placid demeanor; and slight stature, the actor is completely believable as a psychopath who could go undetected for years before going too far. Other positives include a witty opening title sequence. Additionally, the classic country songs that pour out of Ford's car radio wonderfully evoke both the period and the locale.
Unfortunately, it is all downhill from there. Melissa Parmenter's string-laden score clashes badly with the dusty, West Texas setting, underlining the movies artificiality. And unlike that other English man, Stephen Frears, who navigated Thompson territory with 1990's The Grifters, Winterbottom never connects with the sleaziness of the source material and never seems more than a tourist in this desert milieu. Overly elegant art direction and set design work against the story's seediness and Marcel Zyskind's cinematography is overly elegant, never suggesting the grit of either the tale or the locale.
Where Winterbottom does fully engage Thompson is in his propensity for extravagant violence, particularly against women. The camera lingers over the worst of Ford's acts, emphasizing blood, breaking bones, destroyed faces and more. Those scenes are ugly, serving more to rub the audience's face in Ford's viciousness rather than advance the story. A little discretion in these scenes could not have saved The Killer Inside Me, which further goes over the rails in a flamboyant variation on Thompson's original ending that is flat out ridiculous, but at least it would have made the entire enterprise far more palatable.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman, Simon Baker, Tom Bower, Liam Aiken, Brent Briscoe and Jay R. Ferguson
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriter: John Curran
Producer: Andrew Eaton and Bradford L. Schlei
Running time: 110 min.
Release date: TBD