“We’re kinda old fashioned,” Casey Affleck’s Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford intones through voiceover, as The Killer Inside Me opens, and were it not for the title you might be mistaken that you’re watching a gentle little film about quaint Southern ideals. “Out here, you’re a man and a gentleman or you aren’t anything at all.” Less than five minutes of screen time pass before that same gentleman mercilessly whips a prostitute’s bare behind with his belt, and less than twenty minutes after that, he gratuitously beats her to death.
It’s hard to defend such an inevitably controversial film as this, particularly when the former scene follows an occasional and distasteful movie tradition of woman getting off on being assaulted (see also: Straw Dogs); and when the latter scene is so relentlessly brutal and explicit that it apparently caused walkouts at the premiere. As is often the case, such controversy threatens to overshadow the film, but Brit director Michael Winterbottom has potentially allowed the extreme and detailed depictions of violence – no less shocking on the small screen – overshadow the rest of the movie itself. Never mind the Daily Mail when even your own audience cannot appreciate an otherwise well-made film if some scenes are too disturbing to stomach.
Admittedly, the graphically violent scenes in question do not take up much of the running time compared to, say, a Tarantino or a Bay, but those directors are characterised by their cartoonish, sometimes gory movie violence; there is a disconnect. Here, there is no disconnect, with the beatings and murders portrayed under the flag of realism, making the experience uncomfortably authentic.
As it stands, the film is a slick, well-crafted neo-noir, adapted from Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel of the same name, and retaining much of the source’s darkly noirish elements. The plot burns slowly and decisively as the net gradually draws in on Affleck’s psychopathic Sheriff. It has a structure and a sensibility that shares much with its 40s and 50s counterparts, an old-fashioned detective story at its heart, and an admirable attention to detail with its period setting.
There are some blindingly good performances as well, not least from Affleck, who never overplays the psychotic Sheriff Ford, lacing him with a quiet and unnerving understatement, his polite Texan drawl always at odds with his secret murderous life and the perverse pleasure he gains from it. His tiny smirk of enjoyment as he wreaks his bloody carnage across the small Texan town is frighteningly convincing. Affleck is propped up by a solid supporting cast, among them Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, and a darkly comic cameo from Bill Pullman.
Winterbottom has previously ruffled feathers with 9 Songs, ‘the most sexually explicit film ever released in the UK’ and has never shied away from challenging subject matters. He’s a gifted and prolific filmmaker, an asset to the British film industry and one of the hardest working directors around, and there are undoubtedly elements of The Killer Inside Me which are testament to that. But including such graphic scenes of brutality against women in what would otherwise be a slick, good looking neo-noir serves only to alienate and divide his audience. You may appreciate the filmmaking on show, but even those desensitised from years watching bloody action movies may be shocked. Whether you will enjoy it is another question altogether.