Implicit in its title, the premise of The Killer Inside Me—directed by Michael Winterbottom from Jim Thompson’s 1952 crime novel—could be summed up in a classified ad: Texas cop with pleasant boyish demeanor seeks compliant dames for sadistic sex games culminating in murder. What complicates this tale is the telling. Here, as with Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, the glibly versatile Winterbottom has taken on the challenge of an impossible adaptation.
In The Killer Inside Me, Thompson’s fearsome tale is recounted in first person by a blatantly unreliable narrator. Foisting himself on the world as a gentlemanly, platitude-spouting Jimmy Stewart type, Lou Ford is less a character than an act. The ease with which the killer-cop outwits the other characters is matched only by the apparent rationality with which this self-conscious psychopath explicates his increasingly brutal crimes. There’s a sense that Ford not only scripts the story but also directs the action. Nothing the calculating protagonist says can be taken at face value.
The Killer Inside Me isn’t even so much a novel as a vacuum that inexorably sucks the reader into a moral black hole. The book has to play inside one’s head to work. But Winterbottom’s version is Classic Comics: The characters are stiffly drawn, the action is fastidiously staged, and the production design is self-consciously retro, reinforced by a sound track surplus of western swing.
Lou (Casey Affleck) smiles affably as he stubs out his cigarette in a derelict’s outstretched palm or sets about beating his adoring punching bags—a hot little hooker (Jessica Alba) and a hard-faced school teacher (Kate Hudson). Winterbottom necessarily ups the book’s violence quotient merely by dramatizing it. The reader is implicated by Lou’s intelligence; the viewer is repulsed by Lou’s actions.
Affleck’s voiceover notwithstanding, the insinuating quality of Lou’s divided consciousness is trickier to deliver than his capacity to beat some chick to a pulp. His intelligence can be signified: We know he’s the smartest dude in town because he listens to Caruso, solves chess problems and fences so well with the movie’s resident superego, local union organizer Elias Koteas. But, without his voice conjuring reality by whispering in our ears, this la-di-da routine is just another reason to dislike him.
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Actually, Koteas’ relentless overacting accentuates Winterbottom’s greatest asset: Affleck. He projects himself as a natural-born creep. This withholding actor’s impish smile and mild, pale-eyed stare—not to mention the Clinton-esque hoarseness with which he spins his convoluted lies—are sufficiently convincing to keep The Killer Inside Me from being just a steamy, stylish, punishing bloodbath.
The Killer Inside Me was directed by Michael Winterbottom; written by John Curran, based on the novel by Jim Thompson; and stars Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty and Elias Koteas. Rated R. Countywide.
This review appeared in print as "Adaptive Behavior: Killer’s tormented self gets simplified for screen."