Film noir has always been a nasty business, concerned as it is with obsession, betrayal, fate and murder. In the golden age of noir, the 1940s and ’50s, the genre’s more rousing indelicacies had to be at least somewhat muted with euphemism and pictorial shorthand. But that sort of restraint is long gone, and now comes “The Killer Inside Me,” which might be the most graphically nasty noir ever made.
In its blunt brutality, the movie seeks to be true to its source, Jim Thompson’s hardboiled 1952 novel (still a savage read). The protagonist is Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a small-town lawman in late ’50s Texas. On the outside, Lou is a baby-faced straight arrow, polite and smiling and ready to kill any conversation with his witless chitchat. (“You know, they say haste makes waste.”) But Lou actually isn’t the dullard everyone assumes him to be. At home, in the big house he inherited from his father, he reads books, listens to opera, plays the piano and muses nostalgically over old porn photos. His exhausting small talk is simply a means of needling people he doesn’t like. Which would be everybody. Because deep inside, Lou is really a homicidal sociopath — the sort of criminal degenerate he’s nominally paid to put away. “The trouble with growing up in a small town,” he says early on, “is that everybody thinks they know who you are.” Nobody knows Lou Ford. Nobody still living, anyway.
With its conniving characters and their small-time dreams, the story is purest noir. When the son of a local big shot becomes involved with a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), Lou is assigned to chase her out of town. When Joyce proves defiant, Lou becomes aroused. He whips off his belt — and she becomes aroused. Soon Lou is stopping by for regular S&M sessions, and storm clouds begin to gather. Lou finds it imperative to commit a double homicide. He has rigged up an alibi, but the town union boss (Elias Koteas) — who knows a lot about Lou’s twisted past — and a newly arrived federal agent (Simon Baker) are both suspicious. Lou has to continue stacking up corpses in order to keep himself in the clear and his apple-pie sweetheart (Kate Hudson) in the dark.
The movie is powerful (and muddled at the end), but the cast is the main reason to see it. Casey Affleck, with his air of whispery innocence, seems an unlikely choice to play the monstrous Ford; but he turns out to be perfect — coming from such an artfully recessive actor, Lou’s flaring rages are a shock; and Affleck’s soulless voice-overs lay bare the character’s interior rot. Alba and Hudson are both startlingly good too. Alba ventures beyond her normal range in playing a doomed slut with a heart of fool’s gold; and Hudson, a brunette here, is completely convincing as a ’50s good girl with gamey inclinations. (The scene in which she detects olfactory evidence that Lou has had sex with Joyce has to be some kind of first for such a star-powered production.)
Director Michael Winterbottom has said that in bringing “The Killer Inside Me” to the screen, he wanted to bring with it the full lacerating violence of Jim Thompson’s novel. But violence on the page and violence in your face are of course two different things, and the ferocious beatings we watch being administered to some of the women in this film might have given pause to Thompson himself. The movie’s sadism certainly pushes the envelope, but who does the director intend to mail it to? (Dozens of people reportedly walked out of a screening of the picture at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.) The film’s pulped flesh and puddling blood break the noir spell — they leave us nothing to imagine. There’s no resonance, only impact. The murky moral depths of the film-noir world drain away under the movie’s merciless illumination.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Killer Inside Me.”
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