Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.
This is how Stanley Kubrick described Jim Thompson’s 1952 classic pulp novel “The Killer Inside Me”: and he should know a thing or two in this field, having explored the darker recesses of the human psyche more than once in his filmography.
Michael Winterbottom adapted the novel into a film in 2010, starring Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in small-town Texas in the 1950s. It’s apparent in this close and closed community that appearances and reputations are all-important. Yet beneath his pristine white shirts, despite his beautiful local-girl fiancée and his deputy’s badge, Lou Ford is a sociopath, with a mean streak of sexual sadism thrown in for very, very bad measure. He scoffs at the notion that because people have grown up with him that they think they know him. And very quickly, he proves his point.
Michael Winterbottom is a terrific film-maker, and is almost never boring. I’ve loved many of his films: the relentlessly bleak but compelling Jude, the understated, meandering study of grief that is Genova, the electrifying and shocking Road to Guantanamo, the surreal and knowing A Cock and Bull Story, and his most recent piece of brilliance for TV, The Trip.
The Killer Inside Me is a beautiful film to look at (except for the moments your hands are covering your eyes). It evokes the dusty heat of the Texan summer, setting the dust and heat against shiny cars, wood-panelled interiors, immaculately-tailored suits and dresses. It uses many of the classic tropes of the film noir genre to very strong effect. However, within this well-crafted and wonderfully-acted film there lurks a very dark heart indeed.
As Lou Ford, Casey Affleck dramatises that very dark heart. Within barely a few minutes of the start of the film, he has pursued a sadomasochistic affair with Jessica Alba’s prostitute character Joyce Lakeland. Then almost from nowhere, he viciously punches her into a coma, leaving her for dead. This scene lasts for several minutes, and is unflinchingly portrayed in full-frame. Nothing is spared as we watch her face transform “into hamburger meat”, and the blows just keep coming. It’s almost certainly the most disturbing scene I’ve ever watched on film. He also clinically shoots dead her ‘other’ lover as part of a twisted blackmail scheme. These deeds and their aftermath soon spiral out of control, and Lou begins to lose his cool facade, killing again and again to try to protect himself from the pursuing local DA.
Affleck is quite brilliant in this performance. His face is usually flat, emotionless, reminding me of the way Patrick Bateman is described in American Psycho, to whom everything is of seemingly equal importance or relevance, whether that’s which restaurant to book, the font on his business card, or how he butchers a stranger he met on the street. Like Ford, Bateman seems aware that he’s playing some kind of game, acting normal, conforming to expected behaviours in order to just get along without raising suspicions. However, there’s no apparent discrimination in the way he treats his victims, male or female.
It’s the differences in the way Ford treats women that are deeply problematic. He kills many men, but usually off-screen and/or very quickly. The two women in his life are despatched with protracted, graphic, sickening violence. On top of that, there’s more than a hint that his sadistic streak is accepted and indeed welcomed by these women. They are all seem depicted as submissive, welcoming his dominance. We’re shown flashbacks to his childhood that aim to reinforce this, almost as if to explain away these choices in the film. It was all his nanny’s fault – she led him on as a young boy. That’s what made him…
Much as I admire a lot about this film, I’m not sure that I buy it. Lou Ford is a deeply manipulative man – he knows exactly what he’s doing. He makes conscious choices, and we are painfully aware of them. He seems to revel in his violence against women, just as he is secretly proud of the way he deceives those men who think they know him. His power, his conquests over men are largely intellectual. He avoids the questions of the DA, and the efforts of others to control him. Even at the end he chooses his own final scenes.
However, we periodically see him remembering his affair with Joyce tenderly, with dreamy lighting and settings that feel out-of-place with the rest of the film. For me this turns Ford into a massively unreliable narrator. We are encouraged to think that somewhere inside he is capable of love, empathy and compassion. But his power over women is entirely physical, and brutal in its remorselessness. He says he’s sorry, but to me that feels hollow, another example of him saying what we want him to say, what we need him to say.
I don’t believe this is a misogynistic film, but it does depict misogyny. Michael Winterbottom has filmed strong female characters before, most notably in A Mighty Heart, but this film, for all its strengths, style and great acting, left me feeling deeply uneasy. Peter Bradshaw has mounted as solid a defence of The Killer Inside Me as anything I’ve read. It’s well-written and persuasive. But I’m more on the same side as this terrific blog. There’s a fine line between depicting unacceptable acts and being unacceptable.
At one point Lou reassures a soon-to-be-victim that “nobody has it coming. That’s why nobody sees it coming”. I’d read quite a bit about this film before choosing to see it, but I certainly didn’t realise how it would make me feel. Maybe it does show us how shallow and unrealistic most screen violence is compared to the reality of violence. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.