Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Simon Baker, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman
Just a warning. I recommend "The Killer Inside Me" enthusiastically, but it's not for everyone. It features some pretty frank depictions of violence against women. It's not glorified or glamorous. It's detestable and disgusting, which is entirely the point. This movie, which is incredibly faithful to its Jim Thompson-penned source novel, tells its story from the perspective of a deeply disturbed man, and while it seeks to understand the killer, it doesn't sympathize with him.
Thankfully, Casey Affleck, who plays the killer, gets this. He's one of the finest actors working today, and his performance here is another great one. That's no small task, since he already set such a high standard for himself in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Gone Baby Gone." His ability to switch from awkward weirdness to keen intensity to terrifying blankness reminds me of a younger Robert DeNiro or Christopher Walken when they were establishing themselves as Hollywood's go-to psychologically interesting leading men in the 1970s.
Affleck plays Lou Ford, a seemingly mild-mannered deputy sheriff in a dusty Texas small town in the 1950s who's dating a local "nice girl" (Kate Hudson). As we come to learn through some brief flashbacks and some elliptical expository dialogue, Ford has largely succeeded in hiding his darker side behind a hazy veil of folksy cliches and banality. It takes a sado-masochistic sexual affair with Joyce, a prostitute on the edge of town (played by Jessica Alba), to unlock the "sickness" inside of him.
Ford begins to tap into this inherent violence and sets out to tie up some loose ends from his past. He sets everything in motion by savagely beating Alba's prostitute in a scene that created much of the controversy surrounding the movie's premiere at Sundance earlier this year. Director Michael Winterbottom shoots the beating, which is just one blunt punch to the face after another, as dispassionately as Ford carries it out. Look at Affleck's eyes during this scene. That's not the look of a raving lunatic, it's one of a cold, clinical robot. Does he even have free will? It's a terrifying scene, not so much for the brutality but for the matter-of-fact way Affleck delivers each punch and each "I'm sorry" and "I love you."
Like in any true noir, Ford's murderous plans eventually fail. The plot is a bit hard to follow at spots, but that doesn't relieve us of the suspense Winterbottom and Affleck generate. Just about every time Ford opens his mouth, it's a lie and we know it, but the tension comes from trying to figure out whether the other characters know it, too. Some, including a top investigator (Simon Baker) and a local lawyer (Elias Koteas) have Ford pegged from the moment he meets them, but it takes time for the rest of characters to acknowledge it, if only out of fealty to the code Ford explains through narration early in the movie. Everyone thinks they know everyone, and everyone is too dignified or honorable to address anything that could be embarrassing to anyone else, particularly people breaking the law. When Ford's true nature is revealed, the town is exposed, too.
Rating: **** out of five
(The Killer Inside Me is in limited theatrical release and is available on Comcast's OnDemand pay-per-view service.)