Casey Affleck is a phenomenal actor. He burst from the shadow of his older brother (yes, that Affleck) with his vulnerable, Oscar- nominated supporting turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (and his performance can only be considered “supporting” in the same sense that a house can get by without “supporting” beams). He later starred in big bro Ben’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, where he proved himself to be an imposing, but intensely likable leading man. Now, with Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he reveals more of his immense talent. His performance as sociopathic deputy sheriff Lou Ford is more compelling than any other I’ve seen this year. His commitment to such a vile character, even in spite of Winterbottom’s occasionally questionable direction, displays a fearlessness that is rarely seen in cinema today (excluding Charlotte Gainbourg’s performance in Antichrist, and perhaps even Seth Rogen in Observe and Report – yes, I said it).
The film takes place in a small Texan town sometime during the 1950s. Lou Ford (Affleck) is an affable young man who has earned the trust of his fellow townsfolk, with his eagerness to do right by them and their kin. As is the way with pleasant men who seemingly “wouldn’t hurt a fly”, Ford is a serial killer whose unsavoury desires have lain dormant for many years. That is until the corrupt construction magnate Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) asks Lou to pay off prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) and get her to leave town. Instead, Lou and Joyce kick off a violent affair, leaving his schoolteacher girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) in the dark, and waking his psychotic desires that – despite his best intentions – do not go unnoticed by the community.
Winterbottom’s take is the second since the book’s publication in 1952. I’ve not seen Burt Kennedy’s 1976 adaptation with Stacy Keach in the lead role. In the past three decades, multiple iterations were proposed, but none executed until now. And I must say, I’m glad they waited. I couldn’t imagine a better, more threatening Lou Ford than Casey Affleck, even when he remains softly spoken (or completely silent). Previous proposals included Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, who are a little too pretty; too physically imposing. Jessica Alba gives (in my opinion) her first good performance as the kindly hooker who is entranced by Lou’s violence, right to the bitter end. Kate Hudson is fine, if perhaps miscast. She just seems too worldly and sexy to be Lou’s childhood sweetheart (she’s also physically larger than Affleck; a subtle yet important mistake). The rest of the cast fare better, including Simon Baker and Elias Koteas as lawyers who suspect Ford’s homicidal tendencies from the start.
This past week, purely by coincidence, I watched two other films with a sociopath at its core: Gus van Sant’s near shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. What I love about those films is the way in which they refuse to excuse or explain away the reasons for their lead character’s descent into madness (although Psycho threatens to ruin it all with a last-minute insight into Norman Bates’ past). The filmmakers instead use their immense talent to visually construct a heightened universe within the mind of these killers that – particularly in the case of Repulsion – is tearing apart at the seams (American Psycho is another film that executes this wonderfully). Winterbottom provides no such flair in The Killer Inside Me. Perhaps that is the film’s fatal flaw. The director is content with constructing a perfectly “normal” world for his demented protagonist, so much so, he appears as little more than a troubled anti-hero (and trust me, Lou Ford is much more evil than that). And then, he flashes back to Ford’s past as if that could explain the mind of such a crazed, unrepentant murderer and misogynist.
The film’s opening credits hint at a pulpy throwback to film noirs (with a particularly unsympathetic hero), but the remainder of the film is so visually flat it feels unfair to compare it with genuine gumshoe throwbacks such as Brick or even Winter’s Bone. It is a bad sign when a film’s opening credits (and even its trailer) are better at setting tone than the rest of the film. Saying that, it’s a sign of a brilliant central performance – one on which the whole film hinges on – that I can award the film a more-than-decent three and a half stars despite these problems.