On the surface, deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) walks and talks just like everybody else in his 1950’s West Texas town. Whether he’s politely nodding to female passerby’s or diligently listening to his boss’s instructions, Lou is a quiet and unassuming presence. Early on in Michael Winterbottom’s brutal The Killer Inside Me, Lou is ordered out to the local prostitute’s house to run her out of town by all means necessary. But after a tussle with Joyce (Jessica Alba), Ford instantly crosses the boundaries of law and order, sanity and insanity, violently pushing the woman to the bed and spanking her with his belt. This altercation triggers something terrible in the young man, and Lou proceeds to have rough sex with Joyce. Even more problematic, Joyce appears to enjoy it just as much as Lou does, and this interaction begins a torrid love affair between these two sides of the law.
The tonally schizophrenic opening sequence establishes Lou as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and his psychologically disturbed world a disjointed nightmare. As the film progresses, Lou becomes a diabolical anti-hero who succumbs to violence at the drop of a hat. After developing a powerful sexual relationship with Joyce, Lou gets embroiled in a blackmail scheme that turns deadly. Except he’s not the victim but the ferocious puppeteer cutting off loose ends with keen precision. Why? We’re never quite sure. Maybe Lou kills and maims to simply to see if he can get away with it. The players involved, including a corrupt businessman (Ned Beatty), his lug of son, and a brother who died a mysterious death years ago, don’t offer any indication of Lou’s motivations. Throw in a shady union boss (Elias Koteas) who spots Lou’s dark streak early on and his Suzy-homemaker girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson), and you’ve a Noir-infused web producing many casualties both guilty and innocent.
Adapted from Jim Thompson’s notoriously violent novel, Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me sees Lou as a murderous enigma, a force of inexplicable violence that expands his brutality with each narrative complication and offense. Lou’s deadly motivations are purposefully obscure, even as Winterbottom injects scattered traumatic flashbacks in an attempt to establish his tainted character. This lack of explanation has caused some critics to label Lou a “fascinating” character, an unsolvable cinematic devil for the ages. But Affleck and Winterbottom’s creation is more ugly and indulgent than fascinating. The murder scenes are as bad as advertised and extremely difficult to watch, not simply because of the elongated suffering the victims endure or the temporal elaboration of the acts themselves, but because they represent the thoughtless lack of subtext perpetrated by the filmmakers. As Lou kicks one character to death, his ridiculous apologies offering no respite, and the film almost becomes his accomplice.
Stylistically, The Killer Inside Me constructs a surreal cross between Noir and Horror, Winterbottom vibrantly painting each scene with extreme hues and contrasting flashes of light and darkness. Lou traverses this intricate terrain with a sly smirk and nine lives from the law, a group of drunks and imbeciles that can’t put the pieces together even though the bodies keep stacking at Lou’s door. The film ebbs and flows entirely with Lou’s coverups, then in a ludicrous twist of events, The Killer Inside Me ends in a bloody, explosive finale that could be one of the most inane endings in film history. Part cop out, part offensive allegory, the finale becomes just another ambiguous and pointless flight of violent fancy from a film that’s spent two hours torturing its characters and audience.