It was the American Psycho of its day.
There should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the book that Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me” is rough stuff, because Jim Thompson’s novel certainly was. It dared you to identify with the dangerous and unhinged Lou Ford as he tumbled down a self-made rabbit hole of murder and sexual compulsion. It was a breathless exercise in voice from one of the most blistering of the pulp writers, and no less a filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick was determined to make it at one point before finally giving up in the face of what a studio would realistically release at the time.
Michael Winterbottom has proven himself to be one of the most versatile filmmakers working today, his style from film to film mandated by the material instead of the other way around. He has tried his hand at science-fiction (“Code 46”) and arthouse porn (“9 Songs”) and wicked dry comedy (“Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story”) and music biopic (“24 Hour Party People”), and yet none of those films can be summed up that easily. “In This World,” “A Mighty Heart,” “The Claim,” “Jude,” “Butterfly Kiss”… that’s a deep filmography, rich and varied and adult. That’s the thing about Winterbottom… when you watch his films, you’re being treated like an adult, no punches pulled, nothing coy or pandering about them. And his no-nonsense attitude as a filmmaker seems to have paid off in him finally making a film that has been attempted dozens of times over the years, always with disastrous results.
“The Killer Inside Me” tells the story of a small town sheriff’s deputy named Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) who seems to be a perfect gentleman. Soft-spoken, polite, in love with a very proper local girl named Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). But Lou Ford is a mask. And the thing that wears the mask comes out to play when he meets Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a whore he’s told to run out of town. And that thing, once unleashed, starts to spend more and more time feeding its appetites, and Lou Ford becomes harder and harder to maintain as a mask. It’s darkly funny in places, it’s downright horrifying at times, and it is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Thompson’s novel, in intent if not in specific action. It’s a gorgeous movie, a fat slice of American visual mythology, with Winterbottom creating a small-town Americana that is based on paintings and movies and shared cultural memory. Marcel Zyskind, who shot it, is one of Winterbottom’s frequent collaborators and he also shot Lukas Moodysson’s haunting “Mammoth” recently. He’s got a documentarian’s sensibility but a painter’s eye. That’s perfect for helping Winterbottom create this small town Hell through Lou Ford’s eyes.
Casey Affleck has quietly become one of the most impressive character actors working today. His work in this film is on par with his work in “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” and it is nuanced, creepy, and convincing. The Lou Ford face he typically wears is a guy just getting by, someone sort of just barely touching the surface as he glides along, and Affleck sells it so that when he lets that mask slip and we see the real guy, the anger he keeps bottled up, the sexual appetite, the pure kink… it’s a shock. And it’s also equally believable. Once you see that, then the public face becomes creepier. Once you see just how far he’ll go when he lets himself, there’s something evil about the smooth, slack, placid personality he presents to everyone. Kate Hudson has had a frustrating career, but I think this one performance is good enough to be a reminder that she was once very promising. She’s a good girl, a proper girl, but once she’s behind closed doors with Lou, she’s got her own secret face, a carnal appetite that would be enough for most men. She’s eager to please, and she loves Lou. But once he starts to change, she’s also close enough to him that she can see that change. She’s not fooled.
Joyce is, though. She’s a woman who has made her livelihood by being able to read men and give them what they’re looking for, and yet she misreads Lou Ford completely. It’s a case of one predator not recognizing another because it’s dressed like prey. And, yes, the material with Alba goes to some very dark places. Considering the way Alba still refuses to do nudity, the film’s sexual content seems frank and direct, shot to be very much Lou’s perspective, and Alba plays the pin-up girl object of desire perfectly. By making her as plush and glam as he does, Winterbottom sets you up. It’s not just violent when Lou Ford finally snaps and attacks Joyce… it’s a violation of the audience trust. What happens to her isn’t supposed to happen to a girl like that. Winterbottom doesn’t kill her; he destroys her. He holds you by the back of the neck, pushes your face right into it, and then he destroys her. And he makes it hurt. And he makes it so awful you wish you could get away.
“The Killer Inside Me” becomes looser in its grip on reality as the film wears on, and by the end, the argument could be made that we are in Lou Ford’s inner landscape, part of an elaborate fantasy, and not in any sort of “real” world anymore. But Winterbottom never makes it that easy, never lets you off the hook. By making you complicit with “The Killer Inside Me,” Winterbottom dares you to consider your own worst impulses. He challenges you to examine the killer inside you, and for that reason alone, the film may be too uncomfortable for many audiences. For those who are interested in a sharply-acted, beautifully-shot, intelligently-crafted adaptation of one of the blackest rides in all of film noir, “The Killer Inside Me” is available on VOD now, and it’s open in New York and platforming theatrically in the weeks ahead.
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