“Out here you’re a man and a gentleman, or you ain’t anything at all.” So intones Casey Affleck’s Lou Ford at the beginning of The Killer Inside Me, setting the scene for the mess of contradictions that this film is.
Part psychological examination, love story, period piece and brutal thriller in equal measure, it is a film which is worthy of a second examination now it has found its way to the home and mostly freed from the storm of controversy which surrounded its theatrical release.
With that in mind, and unless you’ve been in hiding, you probably most likely know the plot of this, based on the Jim Thompson novel of the same name. Lou Ford is an apparently mild mannered and upstanding deputy sheriff who hides a dark penchant for inflicting violence and murder on people in his life, including a particular fondness for beating women. He soon becomes involved in the ensuing investigations and unravels as his attempts to cover up his crimes unravel.
The Killer Inside Me does a lot right, but also has several major flaws which cripple the film as both a piece of film art and as social commentary. However, let’s start with the positives.
The film is incredible looking. Winterbottom has, for my money, yet to make a bad looking picture in his career, and this one may be the best yet. The opening credits are stunning, set to Little Willie John’s version of Fever, creating an electrifying atmosphere and establishing the film firmly alongside pulp pieces of quality.
The moving image that follows doesn’t fail to live up to this, as the artistry inherent in every frame serves to remind the viewer that this is a product of class. The film also creates a sombre mood of unease and nervous tension throughout, as you both long for and fear Ford’s crimes being uncovered.
It is this dichotomy that lies at the heart of the picture. Affleck’s performance as a believable everyman is essential to creating, not sympathy, but audience complicity in his actions, and the voiceover guiding us through the plot only adds to this. Ford may be a monster, but he is our monster, and he is sharing his crimes with us, not anyone else.
Affleck also portrays the empty iciness underneath the surface, which allows you to accept the acts of cruelty he is capable of, and understand, if not care for, his increasing paranoia and inferiority complex.
The supporting cast are also uniformly excellent, ranging from a career best Jessica Alba as a naïve and ephemeral prostitute who acts as the catalyst for the film’s events, to Simon Baker as the suspicious investigating officer who is determined to prove the truth about Ford.
However, for me, it is Tom Bower as Sheriff Bob Maples who anchors the film. He is the embodiment of the Deep South small town, small mentality, offering pearls of wisdom while being hopelessly outdated. His tragic refusal to admit to himself that he has nurtured a monster is one of the few real pieces of emotion on display here, as he becomes another victim of the web of lies and deceit built up.
This web soon spirals out of control and eventually exudes a dreamlike quality, perhaps offering a reflection of Ford’s mental state. By the end, you are no longer sure of what is real and what is not, complicit once again in the thought processes of a murderer.
Despite all the press it received, I also believe that the, quite frankly, shocking violence is one of the film’s strengths. It is designed to be brutal and intimate, and the filmmakers’ claims that it is necessary are believable. We have become increasingly desensitised to graphic violence in the movies and, while we won’t bat an eyelid over dismemberment and shootings, we get in an uproar when a woman is beaten senseless. This is a good thing. Violence should shock, especially in such a context and with such an unequal balance of power. But it should also shock all the other times we see it. To re-contextualise it in this way is the film’s greatest achievement. Physical hand-to-hand violence still has the power to enthral and repel in equal measure, and violence against women should be abhorred.
However, it is the background to how this violence is played out that The Killer Inside Me falls down and cannot quite redeem itself. The two women beaten and killed are Ford’s lovers Joyce (Jessica Alba) and Amy (Kate Hudson). Both are shown to enjoy rough sex, but nothing out of the realms of the ordinary. However, by explicitly showing this and then having their murders play out as they do (a physical beating at the hands of their lover), the film implicitly links the two, and this is unforgivable and distinctly unhealthy.
Whether or not it was Michael Winterbottom’s intention to expressly show this link is open for debate, but the fact is that is clear for audiences to read it this way.
Women who enjoy the lightest of S&M in their sex life do not deserve to be attacked and violated in an extreme way, which is the message which seems to be found here. By not addressing this, the film, unfortunately, loses much of its moral high ground and becomes something less than it could have been: an examination into the processes and reactions to violence outside the norm.
It is a shame, because Winterbottom is an incredibly accomplished director and one whose work I will always be interested in seeing. However, upon reflection, The Killer Inside Me is ultimately a flawed misstep, although one which is incredibly stylish and intriguing, and worth viewing in order to ponder the issues it raises.
Unfortunately, my review copy didn’t include any extras, although apparently there’s just a few making of-esque pieces on the disc. The score at the bottom, therefore, is for the film alone.
The Killer Inside Me is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.