Punch Drunk Love

The violence in The Killer Inside Me is horrifying to watch, and ultimately knocks this film off balance

I don’t pretend to understand movie audiences under 30 with an ever-growing lust for blood, bowels, vomit and torture. But they’ll get plenty of it all in an apocalyptic view of toxic humanity called The Killer Inside Me, another sweaty, feverish adaptation of visceral pulp fiction by the nihilistic gonzo writer Jim Thompson, who was not labeled “the dime-store Dostoevsky” for nothing. This movie is so staggeringly violent and stomach-souring disgusting that when it screens, it is occasionally greeted with boos and almost always accompanied by massive audience walkouts. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Set in 1959, it is based on the 1952 novel that tells the gruesome, graphic story of a psychopathic 29-year-old small-town Texas deputy sheriff and secret serial killer named Lou Ford, played with a mask of seductive charm by Casey Affleck that curdles the marrow. Mild-mannered and baby-faced in his wide-brim Stetson and kidskin boots, courteous and polite to the neighbors and a model law enforcer, Lou is a popular local figure in a burned-out hick town where everyone thinks they know who everyone else is. But they don’t know this monster. From the minute Lou stuffs out a lighted cigar in the hand of a harmless drunk, you know he’s a creature of darkness hiding behind the smile of a choirboy. This is Thompson territory, where nothing is what it seems, and danger waits in every alley like a coiled diamond-back rattlesnake.

Lou is a nasty piece of work, and so is this film by British director Michael Winterbottom, a stylish filmmaker who inexplicably wanders far afield from his usual heartfelt social documents such as A Mighty Heart and The Road to Guantánamo to tell a story without a trace of redeeming social value. (To be honest, he tells it very well, but read on.)

The first indication that Lou is a homicidal maniac comes early, when a rich old country mayor (Ned Beatty) sends him to pay off a whore named Joyce (Jessica Alba) and run her out of town. Lou gets one free slice of Joyce’s pie and takes her for his lover instead, cooking up a scheme to blackmail her client, who is the mayor’s son. But when the noose begins to tighten around his own neck, Lou beats Joyce to death in one of the most hair-raising scenes ever filmed, puts a bullet through her client’s skull and keeps the money. The best-laid plans backfire. Joyce miraculously survives and is flown unconscious to Fort Worth. The innocent kid Lou arrested to pin the murder on is found mysteriously hanging in his cell after Lou pays him a clandestine visit.

Then, for no logical reason, he slaughters his trusting, stupid girlfriend, Amy (Kate Hudson), on the day of their elopement, kicking her head wide open while a pool of blood circles across the floor. Celebrating graphic violence the way a party gets out of hand, Lou cordially greets the visiting law enforcers (Bill Pullman, Simon Baker), who arrive with what’s left of Joyce the prostitute, by setting his house on fire and burning them all to death. None of this makes sense; no character motivation is ever analyzed; and by the time the end credits roll, everyone in the film is dead already. The film is seriously lacking in a sense of redemption, and I couldn’t find a moral purpose with a spyglass.

Meanwhile, as much as I thoroughly detested this monumental piece of charnel-house crap, I admit there is plenty to keep the mind from wandering. The cinematography gets the dark jail cells and dank houses right, blending perfectly with the sand and sagebrush of rural Texas (although the whole thing was filmed in New Mexico). Affleck is the center of attention, and director Winterbottom does everything to make him riveting. One minute he’s a sexy, childlike toy boy, posed at his piano in his underwear and cowboy hat, picking out the blues. The next minute he’s slapping Joyce into the wall while Spade Cooley twangs “Shame on You.” The shock element is his vicious assault on Joyce. Smashing her face like a squash, it’s the movie’s most controversial scene and its ultimate downfall. In the book it takes up only half a page, but in the movie the misogynist sleaze drags on and on until you are forced to cover your eyes. Worse, the camera lingers on Joyce’s pulverized face and crushed eye sockets for the sake of pure titillation. The mutilation of a Hollywood sex symbol famous for her airbrushed beauty has an obscene effect that unbalances the film.

After his unforgettable stint three years ago as another Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Affleck has been polishing the edge on smarmy, blank-slate sociopaths. Whiny, obsessed with cleanliness and effeminately fussy, his Lou Ford suggests a controlled, self-assured and murky cross between Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Norman Bates in Psycho.

His delicacy is understated, but Winterbottom ruins his good intentions by showing him brooding sullenly to a Gustav Mahler symphony. I don’t see a Lone Star Texas cop as an intellectual pervert. The Marquis de Sade would never have lasted 24 hours in a Texas sandstorm.



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