Film Review – The Killer Inside Me

You may not have heard of The Killer Inside Me. Or maybe you have and don’t realize it. This is the film that caused an uproar at Sundance this year. People walked out of the theatre, and many people who wanted to walk out decided to stay just so they could call the director, Michael Winterbottom, a pig to his face. When you watch The Killer Inside Me, it’s best to prepare yourself.

Lou Ford (played by Casey Affleck) is a deputy in a small West Texas town in the early 1950’s. He is loved by his girlfriend (Kate Hudson) and respected by his boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower). He is calm, pleasant, plays the piano and knows everyone in this town where he’s lived all of his life. It’s doubtful he’s ever been outside of Texas. In his lazy drawl he tells us in voiceover, “Out here, you’re a man and a gentleman or you ain’t nothing at all.”

As the movie opens he’s immediately sent out to speak with a local prostitute that lives outside of town, played by Jessica Alba. The local religious sector is kicking up dust about her living there and the law enforcement officials feel obliged to bow to the pressure of the respectable upper crust. So Ford goes out to see her, to run her out of town. It’s not long before the first of many shocking moments occur. The prostitute, Joyce, slaps Ford when he tells her the news. He responds with a violent whipping that seems to go on much too long. And then they start having sex. Obviously. Ford and Joyce start seeing each other, and they fall in love. Here’s the catch, the Mayor’s son is also seeing Joyce and, even more troubling, he’s in love with her. In true noir fashion we learn that Ford has an old score to settle with the Mayor’s son. Ford starts forming a plan.

It’s good to keep in mind that the movie is based off a Jim Thompson novel from the ’50’s. If you’re not familiar with Jim Thompson, he was a pulp novel writer who tapped into extremely dark subjects and had the verve to write them on paper. “The Killer Inside Me” is considered by many to be his finest novel and at the time of it’s publishing it caused it’s own scandal. As the stories go, people actually passed out at book readings.

The title itself is no thinly veiled, metaphoric allusion. It’s a direct reference to Ford, a man with such deep seeded sociopathic tendencies that he doesn’t even understand them. He’s a creature with no conscious, no understanding of the difference between right and wrong. Affleck has mastered the art of the dead, empty eyes and he uses it to full effect here. He seems to us, at first, almost a naive, innocent man-child and the innocence he exudes never fully goes away, even on the other side of his murderous impulses. It’s a disturbed and disturbingly effective performance. If you like your protagonists with a moral compass, or appreciate characters you can hang your sympathies on, look elsewhere.

There are many reasons not to watch this movie, actually. It’s a good movie, for what it is, watching this deplorable human being navigate a deadly maze of his own design, trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities. But it’s the kind of movie you only recommend to people with caveats. The uproar over the film is entirely justified. It’s not just that the film is violent, it’s that the violence is realistic and prolonged. And most of it is perpetrated by Ford on the women he loves.

The women themselves are only sparingly sketched and don’t get much to do besides fall for this empty man with the dead eyes. It’s a jarring marriage of styles, this realistic take on a pulp crime novel with it’s heightened view of humanity and motivations. It’s what gives the film it’s impact. The question most people seem to be asking is whether or not Winterbottom’s approach is even ethical. But, thankfully, Winterbottom never portrays these outbursts of violence as stylized and attractive and Ford is never a hero to root for. I’ve never understood people having such reactions to stomach churning violence. Isn’t it more unethical to show stylized violence with no impact? To have kids and teenagers look up to heroes who overcome all obstacles in a hail of bullets, wantonly gunning down anybody who stands in the way of “justice”? There are many horror movies out there with huge body counts, meant to entertain. The body count here is small and there’s nothing entertaining about it. And that’s how it should be.

Final Grade: B-