Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is a Texas deputy sheriff in a small country town in the 1950s. On the surface Lou seems like a pillar of virtue. He describes himself as ‘a man and a gentleman’, he doesn’t like carrying a gun and he loves his schoolteacher girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). However, Lou is also having an intense sadomasochistic sexual relationship with prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) and has Oedipal issues that are more extreme than usual, even for a film noir protagonist. He is also a delusional psychopath who kills people for reasons that he largely has to invent for himself after the event.
Adapted from the novel by Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me is the latest film by the highly talented and prolific English director Michael Winterbottom (Genova, A Mighty Heart). It is best described as a ‘country noir,’ resembling films like Lone Star and especially No Country For Old Men for its brutal existentialism. It is also a deeply psychological film that takes the audience further and further into Lou’s mind so that the film ends in a way where we are not too sure what is real anymore and what is part of Lou’s deranged perception of reality. In this way The Killer Inside Me also evokes Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai and a very powerful visual motif from the film’s conclusion is also highly suggestive of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
The scenes depicting extreme violence against women have been, and will most likely continue to be, the main focal point for many people. This is a pity as there is a lot more to The Killer Inside Me. However the scenes do contain an undeniable power that is impossible not to address, shot as they are in a sickening, graphic, realistic and intimate way. The combination of make-up, cinematography and gut churning sound effects is designed to make the audience feel complete horror and disgust. Casey Affleck’s performance adds to the impact as he is so chillingly calm, restrained and even slightly playful.
These scenes are not voyeuristic exercises in cruelty as they function instead as confronting representations of the true impact of violence, especially when fuelled by the type of extreme paranoid misogyny that possesses Affleck’s character. Post Silence of the Lambs, cinematic serial killers and mass murderers have tended to become transgressive anti-heroes. By making the violence in The Killer Inside Me so revolting and unpalatable, Winterbottom confronts us with our own tendency to become complicit with onscreen violence, in a way that is not too dissimilar to Gaspar Noé Irréversible and both versions of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.
The Killer Inside Me is going to attract plenty of detractors not only for its graphic content but also for its pace and bizarre ending. However, it is a slow, atmospheric and simmering film where the tension is maintained effectively through a dread for what may happen next. This is compelling and challenging cinema, punctuated with genuinely shocking moments, by a director and a cast of actors who are right at the top of their game. The content and the unconventional form that this film eventually takes does not make it easy viewing but Winterbottom is a director worth placing your trust in and viewers who are ready to go with him will be immensely rewarded.