Movies: The Killer Inside Me ***
(18, LIMITED RELEASE)
Despite the considerable controversy he has attracted during his career, Michael Winterbottom's talent and originality as a filmmaker have never been in doubt. All too often, though, his assaults on bourgeois sensibilities obscure the virtues of his work, and this absorbing and stylish modern film noir is a perfect case in point.
Because instead of admiring the film's glossy paranoia and Casey Affleck's excellent performance, most people will emerge from it haunted by two exceedingly violent scenes. One of them in particular is bound to lead to walkouts, and whether or not these excesses are justified by the film's themes and storyline is very much a moot point.
Based on a 50s pulp crime novel by Jim Thompson that has been adapted for the screen before, The Killer Inside Me is set in a small Texas town in the 50s and stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a seemingly unremarkable deputy sheriff.
Lou is a sleepily affable 29-year-old with a tendency to drown his speech in clichés and platitudes and a fondness for his unchanging daily routine. He's going out with a local schoolteacher called Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) and seems destined for a long, comfortable and entirely unremarkable life.
But behind those sleepy, bovine eyes lie the heart of a killer. For Lou is a secret sociopath, a deeply disturbed individual whose psychological and sexual abuse as a child has left him with a murderous hatred for those who care for him. Bad news for the women in his life, because -- apart from Amy -- Lou has taken up with a prostitute called Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), who does her business on the edge of town. When he and Joyce begin a passionate affair, their sado-machostic sex unlocks Lou's rage.
A few years previously Lou's brother Mike was killed by a fall from a faulty scaffold on a building site. Lou blames a local developer for this, and plans to get his revenge by blackmailing his son with Joyce's help.
But at the last minute Lou double crosses her, beating her almost to death and shooting the developer's son when he turns up, then staging the scene to make it look like a crime of passion.
But Joyce survives, and may emerge at any time from a coma, and meanwhile Lou finds that the genie is out of the bottle, and he's now driven by a violent urge he cannot control.
Its dark edges aside, the plot of The Killer Inside Me is your standard film noir fare, and Winterbottom lays it out with considerable skill. Affleck is really good as Lou, his bland good looks constantly undermined by those dead, resentful eyes. As he proved in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James and his brother Ben's film Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is a hugely talented actor with a real flair for playing ambivalent and actively unpleasant characters.
A solid cast includes Elias Koteas as a private detective who suspects that Lou is not as harmless as he seems, Simon Baker as a county attorney who also smells a rat, and Bill Pullman as a lawyer who takes Lou's part. And Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba are surprisingly good in roles more sober than the sort of thing they're accustomed to.
But in two scenes involving women, the director goes beyond the merely illustrative in depicting violent attacks, lingering for minutes on end on the scene where Affleck destroys Jessica Alba's perfect face with his fists. In doing so, Winterbottom will argue that he's being faithful to Jim Thompson's book, but as you watch from between your fingers you do wonder if he hasn't merely fetishised these violent attacks on women.
Worse still is the implication, telegraphed early and often, that both the women in Lou's life are complicit in the beatings -- and worse -- that he inflicts on them, and are ready to bestow their forgiveness on him even in extremes.
This is dubious territory, and not even Winterbottom's skill and Affleck's excellence will prevent you from leaving the cinema with a very nasty taste in your mouth.