Killer Inside Me, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/25/10 00:06:06

"Role With The Punches"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

On paper, the neo-noir extravaganza “The Killer Inside Me” looks like a can’t-miss proposition of a film. After all, it is based on a highly praised crime novel written by one of the genre‘s most respected authors, it features a talented and high-powered cast comprised of hot young things and cagey veterans and was directed by a prolific and eclectic filmmaker who has been responsible for some of the most intriguing movies to come along in recent years. On screen, however, it turns out to be a proposition that frequently misses thanks to a combination of a story that hasn’t been successfully transferred from literary to cinematic terms, a group of actors who are largely miscast and a filmmaker who never demonstrates a firm grasp on the material and who doesn’t seem to have any idea of what he is trying to say. As a result, a film which could have been a contemporary masterpiece of the genre instead winds up coming across like a remake of Russ Meyer’s immortal “Supervixens” made by people who have inexplicably chosen to play it both straight and at the wrong speed.

Set in the 1950’s, the film stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the deputy sheriff of the sleepy West Texas burg of Central City. To look at him, Lou appears to be almost too good to be true--he is quiet, calm, polite, good at his job and dating local schoolmarm Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), the nicest and prettiest girl in the area. As it turns out, looks are indeed deceiving because behind that placid exterior beats the black heart of a vicious, stone-cold psychopath. We discover this early on in the proceedings when Lou is sent by the sheriff (Tom Bower) to run recently arrived prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town--when she objects and gets a little rough with him, he smacks her around and proceeds to whip her hinder into hamburger with his belt. Lucky for him, it turns out that she is sort of into this and they begin a clandestine affair made up of equal parts sweet talk and sadomasochistic sex. (As I am about to get into a few plot details, some of you may want to skip the next paragraph.)

It turns out that another man, Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson), is also sweet on Joyce and enlists Lou to help arrange it so that the two of them can leave town and start a new life. Elmer is the son of local bigwig Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), a man who doesn’t want to see his damn fool son caught up with a gold-digging floozy and enlists Lou to deliver a payoff to her to ensure that she will leave town for good. Joyce, on the other hand, isn’t that keen on Elmer but does have a certain affection for Chester’s money and enlists Lou to help her with a plan that will result in the two of them making off with the money. What none of these people realize is that Lou has a history with the Conway’s--his beloved stepbrother, who took a molestation rap for him back when they were kids, was killed while working on one of Chester’s illegally maintained construction sites--and he sees this convergence of events as a way of getting payback and if making this particular omelette requires the breaking of a few eggs, or the unsuspecting Joyce in this case, so be it and in a sequence of such savagery that it inspired walkouts when it premiered at Sundance, Lou literally beats Joyce to a pulp and leaves her for dead, shoots Elmer in the face and rearranges things so that it looks like a lover’s quarrel gone wrong. At first, everything seems to go according to plan but thanks to a couple of unexpected developments and the arrival of an investigator (Simon Baker) who isn’t immediately snowed by Lou’s boyish charms, things soon begin to unravel in typical noir fashion and the bodies begin to stack up as Lou desperately tries to stay one step ahead of everyone, an endeavor made much easier by his ruthlessness and cheerful willingness to sacrifice anyone, no matter how innocent they may be, unlucky enough to be standing in his way.

In terms of plotting, “The Killer Inside Me” sticks fairly closely to the 1952 novel by Jim Thompson (whose work also inspired such films as “The Getaway,” “After Dark, My Sweet” and “The Grifters”)--the essential difference between the two is the manner in which the story is told and that is one of the film’s major stumbling blocks. Thompson’s approach, which was fairly audacious for its day, was to utilize a first-person point-of-view that forced readers to see everything through the psychotically skewed vision of Lou and therefore develop a strange kinship with a character who was, by all accounts, a straight-up monster. As a result, what might have otherwise been an exceptionally squalid and sordid tale with no real point was transformed into a fascinating psychological study that no less than Stanley Kubrick (who worked with Thompson on “The Killing”) would once describe as "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." The trouble with transferring this particular tale from the page to the screen is that it is virtually impossible to recreate that unique perspective in cinematic terms and while it does make an effort to replicate that effect via narration, the film basically forces viewers to observe Lou and his actions from a certain remove instead of letting them get under his skin as they did in the book. This is especially damaging in the case of a story like this because the further removed we are from Lou’s perspective, the more the entire thing becomes just another noir tale and the harder it becomes for us to believe that the other characters believe in his presumed goodness and the stories he spins for them for as long as they do.

Another element that unfortunately extends the distance between Lou and the audience is the fact that Casey Affleck is simply not very convincing in the role. Affleck has given some excellent performances in the past in such films as “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Gone Baby Gone” and he certainly gives it his all this time around but it doesn’t take long to realize that he simply isn’t right for the part. He has the surface politeness down pat but there is nothing to suggest either Lou’s savage depravity or utter ruthlessness lingering underneath--for the film to work, we have to believe that Lou would be calculating enough to create his fiendish plans, many of which require him to brutalize people who profess to love him, cruel enough to execute them without a moment’s hesitation and likable enough to lure his victims to their doom without suspecting a thing. There are some actors who could pull off such things--Josh Brolin might have been an interesting choice and the revelation that Tom Cruise once contemplated taking the role is certainly thought-provoking--but Affleck just isn’t that kind of actor; he seems a little too boyish for the part at times and when he switches from kindness to psychosis, he shifts those gears with the tentativeness of a kid trying a ten-speed bike for the first time. As for the others, Alba is pretty good as Joyce, a role that takes advantage of her ability to somehow seem sweet even amidst the most sordid of circumstances while Hudson gets little to do but model vintage underwear. The best performance of the bunch is probably the one turned in by Ned Beatty as the cruel Conway--his rancid good ol’ boy shtick is brutally effective and it is amusing to note that in some ways, his role here is virtually indistinguishable from Lotso, the seemingly genial teddy bear he voices in “Toy Story 3.”

“The Killer Inside Me” was made by Michael Winterbottom, the insanely prolific British director whose works have included such fascinating films as the Thomas Hardy adaptations “Jude” and “The Claim,” the hilarious musical biopic“24 Hour Party People,” the mind-bending sci-fi drama “Code 46,” the meta-movie deconstruction “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” and the docudrama “A Mighty Heart.” Over the years, he has dabbled in any number of different genres but in those films, he has been more interested in retrofitting them to serve his own personal vision than in simply replicating bits and pieces from older films. This time around, he seems oddly adrift with the material as though he was never able to forge any sort of personal connection with it in the way that he has done in the past. Instead, he seems largely content to replicate things that he has seen and heard in other film noirs but while he certainly has the look of such films down pat, he doesn’t come close to approximating the oppressive sense of dread and doom that goes part and parcel with the genre. Ironically, as Lou gradually begins to unravel and lose his cool in front of the camera, Winterbottom essentially does the same behind it and the story gradually begins to fall apart before climaxing in what is one of the most inexplicable final scenes to come along in a while.

“The Killer Inside Me” is not a complete disaster on the level of Winterbottom’s ridiculous neo-porn experiment “9 Songs” and it does have enough good things in it to make you believe for a while that he might actually pull it out of the bag--the opening credits are really impressive, the visual look of the film is fairly stunning throughout and there are individual scenes that are quite powerful in their own ways (including, it should be queasily noted, the scene in which Joyce is beaten--yes, it is ugly and cruel and horrifying but that is kind of the point and it stands in distinct relief to the coolly anesthetized depiction of violence that we are usually treated to every week). The trouble is that this is a film that should have stayed a book featuring actors and a director who should have come together on a different project. On the bright side, Winterbottom is such a gifted and prolific filmmaker that it is only a matter of time before he comes up with a new project worthy of his talents and this one slides into obscurity. Hell, for all you and I know, he may have done just that in the time that it took me to write this review and for you to read it.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.