During our much-needed heat wave last week I took an opportunity to enjoy the air conditioning at the Varsity and watch Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me. I had the foresight to bring a sweater though — between the A/C and imagery in the film, it got chillier and chillier.
The Killer Inside Me (adapted from the 1952 Jim Thompson pulp novel) is already somewhat notorious. The violence is so severe that co-star Jessica Alba reportedly walked out of the film’s Sundance premiere because she couldn’t take watching herself being beaten to death onscreen. While it doesn’t quite reach the sickening lows of Gaspar Noé’s shocker, Irreversible, it’s the closest I’ve seen in theatres since.
The opening is innocuous enough, with neat screenprint-style title credits accompanied by swing music and West Texas landscape. Deputy Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) opens the film with an interior monologue of bromides like, “out here you’re a man, a man and a gentleman, or you aren’t anything a-tall.”
The first part of the film is a classic noir story told at warp speed. Within ten minutes we see Ford entangled in double and triple crosses with his half-asleep boss, Sheriff Maples (Tom Bower), masochistic prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Alba), troubled girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), sleazy union boss Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas, in a terrible porkpie hat) and fat cat developer Chester Conway (Ned Beatty).
Winterbottom cuts so swiftly from scene to scene that no consequential relationships are developed between the characters. While it’s believable enough that a psychopath like Lou would kill Joyce, it’s hard to imagine her loving him in the first place (which she insists she does).
Alba doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to share with Affleck — she is mostly left to communicate her affection in alternating expressions of fear and arousal. But The Killer Inside Me suffers in comparison to a classic noir like Double Indemnity, where breakneck double entendres help us understand exactly how Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray get locked in their death spiral. (By the way, I challenge you to come up with a more dispiriting indictment of the film industry today than comparing the femme fatale chops of Stanwyck and Alba.)
Affleck tries to carry the water for the whole film and that The Killer Inside Me is watchable at all is a testament to his efforts. He’s a memorable predator, twitching his affectless ventriloquist’s lips around a matchstick he uses for a toothpick. I wonder if Ford is so horrifying that viewers can overcome the impulse to always root for the protagonist, even if he’s a (very, very) bad guy. I was reminded of Patricia Highsmith’s slippery murderer, Tom Ripley, up to a point: it seems that Lou Ford won’t rest until he is caught, no matter how many times he might get away.
After the rapid fire plot points in the first act of the film, it meanders into a study of Ford’s sadism, with some incestuous, Freudian details that may explain some of his madness. The last part of the film is another twisted, self-contained noir story that mirrors the first section, with a fast-burning fuse and underused character actors (this time featuring Simon Baker as a puzzled investigator and Bill Pullman as a hack lawyer).
Before watching The Killer Inside Me I was prepared to defend the director’s use of violence against women as a necessary choice given the pulp fiction source. By the end, I noticed that, in a film where many scenes feel rushed and many characters are left flat, only the sequences of brutality are given ample time to breathe. During Ford’s assaults, the camera slows and the swooping strains of Mahler lend an air of high romance to his menace. I left the theatre wondering, who is more fixated on this sexual violence: Ford or Winterbottom?
Varsity theatre, 4329 University Way NE