Michael Winterbottom’s notorious thriller is troubled, frustrating, mystifying.
After more than two decades of filmmaking, Michael Winterbottom remains one of the most fascinating and yet frustrating directors working. His films are routinely energetic, ambitious, stuffed with memorable performances – actors routinely do their best work when participating in one of his projects – and his subject matter is never less than inventive and intriguing. So why aren’t his films, as complete works, better than they are?
The Killer Inside Me continues the recurrent trend that began with 1997′s Welcome To Sarajevo and continues through a half-dozen or so good-but-not-great films including 24 Hour Party People, The Claim, and Code 46. A great idea for a film, handsomely and adroitly cast, it never quite rises to its potential but instead languishes in unresolved issues and ideas that don’t quite work out to their best conclusions. It’s hobbled, too, by an abrupt and clumsy tonal shift midway through the third act that leaves its ending particularly disappointing.
It’s based on a novel by Jim Thompson, whose other works – The Getaway, The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet - stand stark even in the bleak company of the hard-boiled genre. The story centers on Lou Ford, a soft-spoken sheriff’s deputy in small-town Centreville, Texas of the 1950s. Ford is amiable, gentlemanly, and deliberate, obedient to his alcoholic boss (Tom Bower) and content to live in the house left him by his late doctor father. Some time previous Ford’s adoptive brother died under mysterious circumstances, following lurid innuendo concerning his activities with a child.
When Ford is assigned to investigate the activities of local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), his barely restrained sadism begins to percolate. Actually a sociopath comfortable with his own amorality but happy to disguise it beneath a mild-mannered veneer, he embarks on an affair of rough sex with Joyce while romancing, ostensibly for the sake of appearances, playful but adoring town debutante Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson.) Ford tells himself, and the audience through first-person voiceover narration, that he loves Joyce but can use her to bring about the revenge he’s wanted since his brother’s death.
That revenge involves manipulating her into conning the son (Jay R. Ferguson) of the local construction magnate (Ned Beatty) that Ford blames for his brother’s death. But the revenge is only the excuse, it seems, for Ford to murder the magnate’s son in cold blood and then savagely beat Joyce to death, under a cover of framing the son for her murder but keeping the cash that the son believed would allow him to skip town with Joyce. The resulting brutal violence is central to the film’s greatest ambition but also creates its many failings.
The long, anguished scene in which Ford pummels Joyce, and a later similar scene involving Amy, caused a cyclone of complaints upon the film’s premiere at Sundance and elsewhere, and not without reason – they’re almost impossible to watch without revulsion. Joyce’s death manages, in brutal clarity, to reverse the moral center of the film, turning Ford from interesting if unsympathetic anti-hero (we get small, flashback hints to his true nature several times in the film) to contemptible villain. Affleck seldom changes the temperature of his performance, keeping Ford at the same spacey, plodding cool in almost every scene.
Cleverly, Thompson’s story – adapted by writer/director John Curran – builds a supporting cast that can slide into the vacuum of sympathy created by Ford’s curdling: the well-intentioned if useless sheriff, his earnest deputy (Matthew Maher), a county attorney (Simon Baker), the construction boss suspicious of Ford’s role in the killing, the union organizer who often seems to see through Ford’s “bullshit”; and of course Amy herself, who plans to elope with Ford in the immediate future.
But except for Amy, none of the characters is given the opportunity to establish themselves as presences in the story independent of their relation to Ford; they are not persons themselves so much as types that Ford must evade or manipulate in his day-to-day existence, and in their normalcy they seem scant opposition to his ruthlessness. That’s probably exactly the point Thompson’s book wanted to make (I haven’t read it), that normal civilization is powerless in the face of true evil – a lesson that’s apparently common in Texas, the original no country for old men. Still, that basic imbalance effectively allows Ford to gambol through the film with no clear threat of retribution. It’s frightening, but not in a way that’s especially rewarding to watch.
Winterbottom’s intention may have been to disconcert the viewer rather than entertain all along; there’s plenty to suggest that the entire purpose is to repulse rather than garner sympathy for Ford’s monstrous depravity. If only the last twenty minutes or so held up that level of malicious drive. Following Amy’s death, music and staging coincide to bring a bizarre and awkward sense of camp to several scenes, including a poorly staged chase sequence through town whose indifferent conclusion grows annoying upon reflection. The equally off-putting ending, rife with contortions that set up weirdly symbolic overlays to the story but that run all over the place tonally, virtually collapses the preceding story into dissolution.
Regarding the performances, Ford is a dangerous part to undertake, and it’s hard to imagine other contemporary leading men hazarding such a risky commitment (imagine Brad Pitt doing something like this.) But Affleck’s determination to make his character casually sociopathic keeps the emotional intensity at a level less than what it needs to bring the film. He also never allows much insight into Ford’s inner psyche, and though again that may have aligned with Thompson or Winterbottom’s design ultimately it makes his performance an important question mumbled in a loud room.
The two women are both well cast, if for different reasons. Hudson has made a career of playing the love interest in comedies with the weight of pollen grains, so watching her act both randy and then victimized has a shock value that works forcibly to the film’s advantage. Alba received a lot of negative press for her performance, including a Razzie award, but she’s adequate and at times even pitiably affecting in a part that doesn’t allow her to do much except get ravished or beaten. Of the male co-stars, Bill Pullman steals scenes (as usual) as a lawyer who comes to Ford’s rescue once the plot steers itself into a corner. Maher, an actor who ought to be seen more, is compelling as the last deputy left in town to represent real law.
Speaking of the film’s graphic violence against women, Winterbottom told The New York Daily News that the story exists in a “kind of parallel world” that he was “drawn into.” Yet for as much texture as the film has – it’s a visceral, immersive world that irrepressibly sucks you in – there’s almost nothing by way of context or theory to explain Ford’s implacable rage and madness. The resultant displays come off too casual, too callous, as a direct consequence. And perhaps because the violence is savaged upon women who love and who need to be loved, audiences will expect and for that matter probably have a right to expect closure or at least insight. The women’s performances are good enough that they’ll want to know why; in the absence of such the banality of Ford’s evil inevitably blurs with a lack of articulation of the film’s – and its creators’ – ideas.
They’ll come away disappointed. Ultimately full of problems and dark promise alike, The Killer Inside Me takes us through the life and mind of someone almost impossibly evil but loses itself before offering anything like a way out.
- Michael Kabel