Killer Inside Me, The (2010): Michael Winterbottom’s Version of Jim Thompson’s Novel, Starring Casey Affleck

Sundance Film Fest 2010
The terse, existential and astonishing novels of American crime specialist Jim Thompson (The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet) have exerted a special pull on an impressive line of major directors, such as Kubrick, Peckinpah and Scorsese.

Thompson’s work continues to reverberate and haunt Europeans drawn to his talent for entwining American violence, the open spaces of the Southwest and moral rot. Thompson had a great command of the lyrical description of character. His intensely evocative moods and particular milieu he summoned with a precise feel for language, dialect, behavior and moods.

Foreign directors have turned out the strongest Thompson adaptations: Bertrand Tavernier (whose “Coup de torchon” brilliantly repositions the action of “Pop. 1280” to French colonial West Africa), Alain Corneau (his “Serie noire” is a terrific adaptation of “A Hell of a Woman”), Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (featuring Annette Benning in an early great performance).

The versatile, prolific British director Michael Winterbottom offers one of his most chilling works with his difficult adaptation of Thompson’s gravest feature, “The Killer Inside Me,” originally published in 1952.

Thompson’s novel is one of the most unflinching and terrifying first-person works, The novel and adaptation bind the nihilism of “The Getaway” with the treachery and murderous rage of “Pop. 1280.” In that work, the small-town sheriff turns vigilante not only to eliminate the criminal underworld but also achieve redemption against those who mocked and vilified him.

In “The Killer Inside Me,” the implacable, fiendish Lou Ford, the West Texas sheriff whose destructive rage annihilates everyone that comes into his path, tries to make palpable the unfathomable and inexplicable. Ford recognizes the inherent evil and nasty criminality he is heir to, but he is powerless to control his range. It is the lack of affect, the clearness of mind, the soundness of his reason, that becomes appalling and brutal.

Winterbottom’s adaptation is similarly unflinching and brutal that features two extended sequences of women being beaten to a pulp. At times, the movie is incredible difficult to take, but the violence is never cathartic and offers no release. It stays there, and makes you consider the full implications of pain, horror and death.

The script, by Australian director John Curran (“The Painted Veil”), retains the novel’s first-person voice by employing an extensive voiceover. The story, set in the early 1950s in the aftermath of the oil boom, unfolds in the dusty plains and open spaces of the West Texas town of Central City. Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a deputy sherif, is bound by severe contradictions: he’s an aesthete who plays the piano, reads serious literature and works out complicated mathematical formulas. But he’s also an unhinged man with a brutally sinister and sadistic streak.

At the start, Ford is ordered by his superior, Bob Maples (Tom Bower), to coerce the departure of a beautiful prostitute, Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba). She’s been plying her trade on the edge of the town and taken up a sundry relationship with Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson), the son of the town’s kingmaker Chester Conway (Ned Beatty).

One of Thompson’s themes is the poisonous legacy passed from generation, typically from dissolute father to prickly son. The first meeting between Ford and Joyce is charged with a sadomasochistic exchange of sexual dominance and pain.

Their immediate interaction and his rough play are only the first of several explicit acknowledgments of Ford’s sexual pathology and his primal need to control, through violence and force, a series of different women. Ford conceals his dark edge by carrying a respectfully traditional relationship with Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), the daughter of a local prominent family.

Motivated by his own brand of personal justice and revenge, Ford kicks the story into another level of dread and horror when tasked with carrying out an extortion plot to force Joyce to leave town, he enacts his own elaborate double cross by savagely attacking Joyce and killing Elmer, staging the killings to appear the result of Joyce’s reprisal attack.

Ford’s actions are wholly self-contained. He orchestrates these appalling acts with a brazenness and assurance. He seems convinced his professional status and social standing are bound to save him from any recriminations. The shocking deaths immediately consume the attention of the county district attorney (Simon Baker), some of Ford’s own colleagues on the force and a local union advocate (Elias Koteas) who seems unusually well briefed on Ford’s background and coolly insinuates Ford’s culpability in the deaths.

After Ford himself becomes the subject of a blackmail plot schemed by a stranger (Brent Briscoe), his orderly world begins to collapse around him. His own defensive measures take hold and his self-preservation results in more deaths and destruction. As suspicion about Ford mounts, his psychosis ratchets up another level. Like the novel, the movie suggests a haunting sense that the final movement perhaps exists entirely in his own head.

Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Thompson’s novel “The Grifters” (shot by the excellent Oliver Stapleton) offered one of the most pungent visual reproduction of 1950s Los Angeles ever seen. Likewise, the Danish-born Marcel Zyskind achieves some beautiful work with the flat landscapes in the new adaptation of “Killer.” One of the movie’s recurring shots traps Ford inside his car, driving at night, a kind of spectral glow lighting his face.

Coming off his remarkable turn in Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Affleck continues to impress. It’s a showy part, but his performance is very self-contained and controlled. He rarely raises his voice above a whisper. Until he acts in rage, his movements are subtle and precise. Alba also reveals a previously unseen depth as the brutalized prostitute. The supporting turns also get the details right, with strong work from Koteas, Bower and in a late turn, Bill Pullman as a plain-spoke lawyer.

In the final account, Winterbottom overplays his hand a bit. The biggest problem is his use of music, soaring arias that play over some of Ford’s most gallingly violent acts. It is over scaled for the moment, amplifying scenes that are already at the breaking point.

The ending does not quite pack the punch the filmmakers had intended.