I’m a pretty big adherer to the auteur theory, but there are some directors with careers that seem bent on challenging it. I’m thinking in particular of Steven Soderbergh and the man who is in many ways his British equivalent: Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom has seemed equally comfortable making smart post-modern comedies like 24 Hour Party People and Tristam Shanty: A Cock and Bull Story as he is making gritty political thrillers like In This World and A Mighty Heart. With his newest film, The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom has made one more left turn in his career: he’s made a dark and nasty noir exercise that will repulse as many audiences as it intrigues.
The film is set sometime during the Eisenhower administration in a West Texas town called Central City. The central character is a Deputy Sheriff named Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) who seems like a strait laced boy scout about to start a family with his fiancé Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), but this is a façade. Below his clean cut appearance lies an intense darkness: the character is a violent sociopath. The story begins with Ford encountering a local prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) with the intent to run her out of town, instead he starts a steamy affair with her rooted in rough sex. Soon both of them will be involved in a blackmail scheme with ties to the local magnate named Chester Conway, but this is sort of a red herring, deep down this is all about the Lou Ford character and the darkness within him.
In portraying the Lou ford character Casey Affleck seems to have picked up right where he left off in the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Anyone who saw that triumphant film will instantly recognize the inflection that Affleck is speaking with here. There are certain similarities between the two characters too; it probably wasn’t a coincidence that Andrew Dominik, director of that earlier film, was once attached to this project. The difference is that Robert Ford was a sort of creepy and stalker-ish guy who could finally be driven to murder only after a good two hours of build up. Lou Ford on the other hand is an absolute sociopath who kills numerous people and then blames other people for “making him do it.” A lot of movies like, say, No Country For Old Men can make characters like this seem disturbing yet oddly cool at the same time. I don’t have a problem with those movies, but what’s really interesting about this one is that it doesn’t make the killer seem remotely cool, he just seems creepy and kind of pathetic: more like Tom Ripley than Anton Chigurh.
These murders, two of them directed toward women and a number of them with vaguely sexual overtones (though there’s no actual rape) has shocked a number of critics. I’ll avoid the word “controversy” because this hasn’t really reached or offended many people outside of the film community, though I suspect it would cause more of an uproar if this aspired to wider mainstream success. This is indeed a really violent and sexual movie and frankly I’m kind of surprised that this was able to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating (not that I’m complaining, it’s about time those MPAA prudes updated their standards). There have been stories of walk-outs among sensitive audience members who were disgusted by the material. Fair enough, if you’re sensitive to violence this definitely isn’t the movie for you and probably isn’t the movie for you, but that is your problem and not the movies. I’d argue that this disgusted and horrifying reaction is exactly what the movie intends to elicit and the fact that it manages to affect audiences as widely as it has is in itself a success.
Some have criticized the movie for featuring more sustained and graphic attacks against women than men, but I’d argue this is inherent in the basic plot of the Jim Thompson novel the film is based on. It’s not Winterbottoms fault that Lou Ford’s scheming requires quick deaths for the men. In fact, the differences in which the deaths are depicted kind of underscores the issue here: people barely bat an eye when Lou Ford’s male victims are killed, but these other two gruesome murders really stay with the audience. The killings are not remotely glamorized, anyone who actually “enjoys” these scenes and finds them fun bits of entertainment would have to be a lunatic. All that said, this isn’t an example of a movie that I’d still send sensitive audiences to for it’s other variety of other virtues, because as much as I like elements of this movie and want to defend it, this is a flawed film.
The movie opens with a really snazzy opening credit sequence set to the sultry tune of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” it looks like a genuine throwback to the openings of older movies. It’s a really fun opening, maybe a little too fun. That’s emblematic of one of the movie’s bigger tonal problems, it really relishes in its period noir setting in a way that doesn’t really match the film’s dark content. I think a more minimalist approach to the setting might have been called for, in fact they maybe could have transferred it into contemporary times. I guess that modern forensics might have made some of the plot points a bit of a stretch, but when they transition from vicious violence into these elaborate sets filled with period vehicles and such, it’s really jarring.
I also found the film’s central crime plot was a bit of a tease. We’re led to think that this Chester Conway would turn into this Noah Cross style baron at the heart of all this, and Ned Beatty really makes him an interesting presence. But this crime narrative never really materializes into anything, it’s basically just a really really elaborate MacGuffin. If there’s one thing that MacGuffin are not supposed to be is elaborate, they’re supposed to be really simple things that can be quickly forgotten about, but when it’s something like this I can’t help but want the MacGuffin to come back and be relevant.
Then there’s also the issue of the film’s ending which was, in a word, confounding. I don’t want to give anything away but this ending is so crazy that I’m not sure whether or not it’s supposed to be taken literally. If it is supposed to be literal, then it’s ridiculous and I hate it. If it’s not meant to be taken seriously and it’s some kind of wacked out metaphor or fantasy of the central character, there may be more defending it but I’d be lying if I said it made any sense to me. This alone is almost enough to derail the movie for me, but there’s still a whole lot in the movie that I think is worth seeing like Affleck’s performance and the details of his character, that I’m still going to give it a hesitant recommendation. But be forewarned, this is a challenging movie that should not be watched lightly.
*** out of Four