Michael Winterbottom isn’t a stranger to extreme cinema. A couple of years ago he released the controversial film 9 Songs, which contains actual sex acts on screen, sparking a debate that brings us back to the obscenity ban on Ulysses. With that film, Winterbottom uses real sex acts to show the audience the relationship with these characters instead of conversation. The film, unfortunately, does not work because of its total lack of context and almost zero dialogue between the characters. With The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom is working with another extreme, violence, and seemingly finds more success with the characterization in his film this time around.
Based on the Jim Thompson novel of the same title, the film follows the deputy sheriff named Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) in a small West Texas town in the late 1950’s. Ford, engaged to Amy(Kate Hudson), falls in love with a prostitute named Joyce(Jessica Alba), and falls into a blackmail deal with a powerful construction company owner played by Ned Beatty.
Ford, as his friends call him, is played by Affleck in his usual low-key style reminiscent of his portrayal of another character named Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Affleck holds the movie together with his gentle mannerisms and the almost childlike innocence of his voice. Once the blackmail deal inevitably falls through and Ford finds himself in a corner, he kills (SPOILER) Joyce with his bare hands and makes it all look like the construction tycoon’s son committed the murder.
We’ve all seen death in a movie before, but Winterbottom’s film seems to take too much delight in the violence of Lou Ford. Every now and again we’ll catch a glimpse of Ford’s past and see that he was a troubled child who may have experienced sexual abuse. In his adult years he seems to have started implementing that abuse on others. In fact, Ford can’t even make love without bruising the woman he is with. It is hard to determine whether Ford hates women or if this is how he thinks he should love them because of the flashbacks that are shown. The ambiguity becomes more disturbing when, in the moment he commits murder, he always tells the victim that he loves them, seeming visibly upset by his own actions.
The film deals with murder the same way 9 Songs deals with sex. That is not to say that people are actually killed on screen, but that the violence is never offscreen and it is brutally, uncomfortably explicit. In one case, Ford punches a character’s face with his fists so hard, and so many times in a row, that layers of skin have sunk past the bone and the face is rendered unrecognizable.
It’s hard to call The Killer Inside Me a “Good Movie,” but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. The violence is absolutely horrifying, yet it never feels excessive, it just feels real. I feel like realistic violence, which shows the true consequences of a person’s actions, is far less dangerous than the James Bond method of death, which more or less shows people falling down with no blood or damage to speak of. The film makes the viewer uncomfortable, but it also never forgets to entertain. Some scenes are dryly funny, and the film follows standard Noir conventions that never deviate too far from what’s expected.
The performances, for the most part, work very well. Affleck, Hudson, and Beatty are particularly great with the screen time they’re given, but Jessica Alba feels distant from the film, and it is hard to believe her character when she can barely even react to a heavy punch in the face, but she is good enough as not to pull the viewer out of the film.
The filmmaking style is no different from the famous Noir films of the period, and Winterbottom restrains from camera tricks or special effects, relying (smartly) on the mesmerizing performance by Affleck. Some critics may argue that the film relies too heavily on the harsh realism of the violence, but I suggest watching the quiet moments in between, and you may see something in Affleck that haunts you far more than the explicit violence.