Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. A searing, first person view of a sociopath, the book fascinates while it creeps you out. Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in a small Texas town, and while everybody thinks that Lou is a big, sweet lummox he’s actually a borderline genius who likes to beat the shit out of women. And commit the occasional murder. It’s been adapted before, in 1977, with Stacy Keach in the role of Lou. Now it’s back on screens, and the leading man couldn’t be more different – it’s a long trip from Stacy Keach to Casey Affleck.
Prolific director Michael Winterbottom has worked with screenwriter John Curran to bring Thompson’s novel to period-correct life, and it’s possible that they hewed a touch too closely to the source material. Thompson’s novel is classic noir, hard boiled and twisting and filled with reversals. In a book this works, but in a film it can lend a sense of meandering lethargy, and the entire second act of The Killer Inside Me ends up feeling bloated and aimless.
Casey Affleck is suprisingly good as Ford; I still think he’s miscast, but he makes the role his own. My initial concern about the actor was that he would be playing a very squirrelly Ford, someone who would be obviously ‘off,’ but Affleck brings a suitable thickness and charm to Lou’s public moments. In fact Affleck’s babyfaced looks render Lou seemingly harmless in a whole different way, and it works. Affleck keeps a calm throughout; the main story of The Killer Inside Me follows Lou trying to cover up a double murder with more murders, and every time he turns around things get tighter and tighter. Affleck understands sociopaths, it seems, and he nails the necessary flatness.
The film became a buzz movie at Sundance because of the violence, in particular during a scene where Lou Ford beats his prostitute mistress Joyce, played by Jessica Alba, to death. The scene is brutal (and there’s another scene that I think is even more brutal, especially because of the emotional context, but it seems to get less attention for some reason), but it doesn’t feel like the kind of transgressive moment that would rattle fans of extreme cinema. It’s a tough moment, but not the toughest, and it works in the way it is meant to work: it exposes Ford as a completely abusive, horrible, murdering creep. The main problem may be that the film comes to this scene way too early, or at least it comes to the scene where Lou and Joyce begin their S&M-heavy affair too early. There’s simply not a lot of set up of Lou as a person, or his public persona, something a novel can do quickly through prose but which can take a movie a bit longer.
Speaking of that S&M: just like in the novel, The Killer Inside Me posits a world where all women want to be savagely beaten in bed. This, more than the Alba beating, that seems poised to create an uproar in people. It’s kind of amazing that something written sixty years ago could still get such a rise out of people, but that’s the power of Jim Thompson for you. There’s without a doubt a vein of misogyny running throughout the story – flashbacks establish that Lou’s problems begin with an incestuous and S&M-based relationship with his mom when he’s just about a toddler – but I don’t feel like I have to agree with the story’s politics to like it. And because The Killer Inside Me is a first person tale (Affleck does some narration), the misogyny, like the violence, stems from the sociopathic character of Lou Ford. Yeah, he’s a bad guy, and that’s the point. Yes, Lou kills men quickly and cleanly, but the point is that Lou is taking out his maternal issues on all the women in his life.
Unfortunately the misogyny and violence may be most of what this movie has going for it. The Killer Inside Me hasn’t just been adapted in the past, it’s been essentially picked clean by pop culture. The book itself is a landmark in crime fiction, but that means it’s been the starting point for many, many other more famous movies and novels. The basics of The Killer Inside Me will feel familiar for some audiences, and they may not understand that this is where it all started.
But more than that, Winterbottom’s faithfulness to the source may have hamstrung the whole film. The book’s twistiness doesn’t exactly translate onto screen properly, and a third act institutionalization and visit from a bizarre Bill Pullman (he’s almost playing at parodic levels) feels like a stumbling block. In a novel this stuff works, in a movie it becomes filler and padding. The version I saw at Sundance needed ten to fifteen minutes excised, easily, and I’m not talking about the savage violence that punctuates the movie.
7 out of 10