Directed by: Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart)
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Tom Bower, Bill Pullman
Yes, this is a brutal, nasty, violent and uncomfortable film. Since it’s based on a Jim Thompson novel, I took that as a given going in. A lot of people, however, seem to be surprised—shocked and stunned, even—by the violence of it, and the fact that the primary targets are Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba. So it’s just as well to mention that up front here.
It’s even been argued that the level of violence is worse in the film than in the book. Maybe. It’s been at least 15 years since I read Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, so I can’t say authoritatively if that’s true, though my suspicion is that this perception of the movie’s greater level of violence is mostly the difference between the printed word and the immediacy of film. Regardless, it’s probably good to bear all this in mind when deciding whether or not to see the movie.
The Killer Inside Me is an attempt to enter the mind of sociopathic killer Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a deputy sheriff in a small Texas town in 1952. It’s an attempt that sometimes works, sometimes scores a near-hit and sometimes doesn’t work at all, but is invariably fascinating throughout. The movie is also deeply disturbing in ways it both intends and perhaps doesn’t intend, and in neither case does this necessarily relate to the movie’s violence.
This quality of uncomfortability has as much (or more) to do with the characterization of Ford himself—a characterization that raises the intriguing question of the reality of what we see, since the story is told from Ford’s own perspective. Viewing things through his eyes accounts for the movie’s dispassionate tone—this is, after all, from the mind of a character who can’t feel anything. But it also raises questions of how honestly Ford sees himself.
Stripped to its essence, the film follows the deputy’s descent into complete isolation from the rest of the world. He finds himself in a strange position when local bigwig Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) asks Ford to get rid of local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) because Conway’s son, Elmer (TV actor Jay R. Ferguson), is becoming too attached to the woman. Not only is Ford himself embroiled in a sadomasochistic relationship with Joyce, but Conway is also at least indirectly responsible for the death of Ford’s own adopted brother. The deputy’s solution becomes to beat Joyce to death, murder Elmer and then make it look like Joyce killed him. The bulk of the film concerns itself with Ford trying to keep from being discovered. Since this is in noir and pulp-fiction mode, it only follows that more murders, blackmail and other unpleasantness will be involved.
The storyline alone isn’t all that interesting; it’s what colors the narrative that makes this film intriguing. The real interest lies in the characterization of Lou Ford and in what, at bottom, is his vision of the other characters. And yet the characterization of Ford is slippery in itself. The key to getting a solid grasp on him may be in his assessment early on that the trouble with small towns is that everybody thinks they know all about you, especially since nobody really knows him at all—including, for that matter, quite possibly Ford himself.
The film—which is to say, Ford—views him in highly intellectual terms. The deputy listens to Mahler (pretty rare in 1952) and opera (the latter is very important), reads constantly and makes espresso, while a chess game in progress always sits on the table. But is this reality? Little that Ford says—or even the way that he says it—supports this elevated view of him. The soundtrack of his daily life is country music, not the music he plays at home, and it’s made clear that he knows the more popular music of his day. Is the intellectual Ford merely a role he’s playing for us, and for himself?
These are the questions that keep the film interesting as it goes through its twists and turns to arrive at a very operatic conclusion that may or may not exist outside the confines of Ford’s own mind. I’ll say no more on this point, since the film obviously is designed to leave the ending—and many other things—open to question. This repeated lack of resolution alone may frustrate some viewers, but the crux of the film is built on the idea that it’s told from an unreliable point of view. And, for me at least, that’s what makes this undeniably flawed movie linger in the mind long after it’s over and its pulp plot has run its course. Rated R for disturbing brutal violence, aberrant sexual content and some graphic nudity.