In The Killer Inside Me, director Michael Winterbottom aims to create onscreen the rich, pulpy small-town ’50s southern atmosphere made famous by authors like Jim Thompson, who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based. He gets the surface details right – dusty roads lined by ubiquitous oil rigs; a police officer paroling the streets at night, illuminated by a cloud of smoke.
Yet beneath the production design is a story that offers little beyond the cumbersome specter of men talking to other men, punctuated by bursts of extreme violence against women. It’s a slow, torturous affair about West Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) whose good boy demeanor masks a deep, dark psychotic heart. Translation: Affleck glowers endlessly, endeavoring to imbue his nice guy cadences with menace. But his anger comes across as forced, more a manifestation of the beats of Winterbottom’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with John Curran) than an authentic representation of repressed human savagery.
The movie has received a lot of attention for the outrage inspired by Ford’s gruesome beatings of characters played by Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. An angry viewer reportedly accosted Winterbottom at the film’s Sundance premiere, exclaiming “how dare you? How dare Sundance?” While moralizers who would have the content of movies fit their personal values are the true repellent ones, there’s no question Winterbottom has crossed a significant line here.
The context for the violent acts is the real problem, as they stand apart in their brutality from the straightforward, one-note nature of the rest of the production. Had the movie really probed the madness of men, had the aesthetic reflected the derangement of the protagonist, one could rationalize scenes featuring the pounding of Alba’s face until (as another character puts it) it looks like “hamburger meat,” and the punching and kicking of Kate Hudson as she lies suffocating under her skirt in a pool of her own urine.
But Winterbottom shows no aptitude for the surrealist take on the dark pulp noir the picture requires. He’s far more inclined toward the sexist depiction of a world of immaculately put-together men and beautiful women functioning as thoughtless punching bags. He fetishizes the lawmen and businessmen in their fine getup, driving around town, congregating in diners and conversing with a good old-fashioned Southern drawl. The two women are, by contrast, a prostitute and submissive fiancé, who respond to the despicable acts to which they’re subjected not with anger or fear but by begging and pleading and declaring their love for their heartless attacker.
David Lynch might have made something subversive out of these off-putting elements, perhaps commenting on the warped notions of American masculinity at the heart of the story. Winterbottom, who specializes in a sort of on-the-nose cinematic realism, has no idea what to do. In presenting the narrative at face value he comes away with a movie that’s alternately a spectacular bore and an outrageous, disgusting venture; it’s full of repulsive indignities and absent the slightest justification for the viewer’s endurance of them.