In John Carpenter’s short film “Cigarette Burns,” a movie critic points out that we have an implied agreement with filmmakers: We will sit in the dark under their control, and they will remember that and not go too far. Director Michael Winterbottom (“A Mighty Heart”) has been accused of deal-breaking in “The Killer Inside Me” with its two protracted scenes of violence against women.
The picture is based on a pulp crime novel by Anadarko native Jim Thompson, who, after moving to Hollywood in 1955, contributed more to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory” than the famous director gave him public credit for.
“The Killer Inside Me” was published in 1952 and first portrayed on film in 1976 by Western specialist Burt Kennedy. Winterbottom’s new version is set in the West Texas town of Central City, owned and run by construction magnate Chester Conway (Ned Beatty, “Toy Story 3″). One of Sheriff Maple’s (Tom Bower, “Crazy Heart”) deputies is laid-back, possibly simple-minded Lou Ford (Casey Affleck, “Gone Baby Gone”).
What Ford doesn’t want anyone to know is that he’s a pretty smart customer who reads deeply and listens to opera recordings. He keeps this hidden because he suffers from what he calls “the sickness,” but what we’d call sadistic tendencies. He enjoys putting on the boring hick act, backing listeners into corners and bombarding them with clichéd conversation until they can hardly stand to hear him anymore.
One day, Ford is sent by the sheriff to a small house out by an oil field. His assignment is to run out of town the hooker who lives and works there, Joyce Lakeland (a sadly miscast Jessica Alba, “Valentine’s Day”), who has made a play for and landed Conway’s big dope of a son. In a rage, Joyce slaps Ford; he slaps her back, and the pair discovers that love is not all roses and chocolates. Rose thorns, maybe.
In an attempt to break Conway’s hold on the town, a local labor leader (Elias Koteas, “Shutter Island”) tells Ford that the contractor was responsible for the death of Ford’s brother several years ago, so the deputy decides that Conway’s son should pay the price.
This leads to a revenge murder plot that gets out of hand when a zealous county prosecutor (Simon Baker, TV’s “The Mentalist”) figures out that Ford must be the killer. To get out of the jam he’s created for himself, Ford is going to have to let the killing continue.
Not for nothing was Thompson dubbed the “Dimestore Dostoevsky.” He takes us inside Ford’s head, not the most comfortable place to be. Winterbottom accomplishes this by voiceover narration from Affleck, not a logical move given the film’s ending.
What works better is camera placement, which allows us to see expressions on Ford’s face hidden from the other characters. Affleck is remarkable at sending us these insights into sociopathology without winking at us. Ford’s only audience is Ford, and no one gets the joke but him.
In fact, there are moments in the film that are carried entirely by Affleck’s performance. During the notorious scene in which Ford beats Joyce, what we see mostly is Ford’s face, his expression a combination of sick pleasure and boredom with the repetitive motion. We want it to stop and Winterbottom’s sin is in not allowing it.
Other members of the cast include Kate Hudson (“Nine”), who is fine as Ford’s secretly slutty schoolteacher girlfriend (but who should have played Joyce), Brent Briscoe (“Extract”) as a hobo who falls prey to Ford’s machinations, and Bill Pullman (“Bottle Shock”), who’s a hoot as a seriously bent lawyer.
And watch for recognizable Oklahoma landmarks. The picture was shot largely in Guthrie, Enid, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, with locations that include Cattlemen’s Steakhouse and the Skirvin Hilton. “The Killer Inside Me” had a limited theatrical release in mid-June (but not here), and is now available to view on demand.
So is Winterbottom’s film really too violent and misogynistic? Some early reaction from the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, including walkouts of some screenings, fanned controversy that burned around it. Maybe the better question would be, is it unrealistic given “the sickness” of Ford?
No, it isn’t, and maybe seeing this type of character for what he really is will come back to haunt you next time you think “Dexter” or a mainstream shoot-’em-up crapfest like “Wanted” is fun. -Doug Bentin