'The Killer Inside Me' didn't have the easiest inception. After numerous failed attempts over the past three decades to re-adapt Jim Thompson's noir crime novel (Burt Kennedy's 1976 film being the original big-screen version), it finally premiered at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, only to be booed for its graphic depiction of violence against women. Love it or hate it, there's no doubt Michael Winterbottom's latest will have a polarising effect.
Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in a sleepy, Texas town. Ford presents himself as mannerly, reserved and soft-spoken, reflecting the 1950s setting he inhabits. Tasked with investigating a local prostitute, Joyce (Alba), he instead falls for her, drawn-in by the violent sex the two share. Planning to run away together, they plot to blackmail one of her clients - the son of a prominent businessman - to obtain sufficient funds. Things take an unexpected turn, though, as Ford is overtaken by his urges and lack of control, revealing the mental illness lying beneath his facade...
Naturally, much of the attention the film receives will focus on the violence, and it's not hard to see why. One particularly explicit scene will be extremely hard to watch for many. While the vividness of the brutality emphasises the heinousness of the crimes and the depth of Ford's psychosis, they seem misplaced and jar uncomfortably against the nature of the rest of the film. There's a lack of conviction in the tone - had the movie really probed the madness of its protagonist in both its pacing and aesthetic, then these scenes would have been more easy to rationalise. Instead, it comes across as a shock tactic and at times you really wonder if Winterbottom is just courting controversy the same way he did with '9 Songs'.
While he gets it right with the surface visual details, the director falls between stools in how to present the story. Should he play it as a straightforward blackmail/crime/cover-up? Should it be a study of mental illness or sadomasochism or violent tendencies? Should it be realistic or surreal? Serious or humorous? The answer ends up being all of the above, but the result is that the colour and mood become confused as the film progresses.
To give credit where it's due, the movie fares better in the performances. Affleck impresses with a cold, calculating portrayal. Coming off as believable when the character's mood and actions vary so wildly takes skill, and this should help continue his upward career curve. Kate Hudson shakes off her rom-com shackles with a decent turn as Ford's submissive girlfriend and other supporting cast also pass muster, though Alba's prettiness stretches credibility somewhat.
Ultimately, divorced from its controversy, 'The Killer Inside Me' reveals itself to be lethargic, tedious and badly muddled. It could have been as substantial as it likes to think it is, but lacks the cohesion necessary. If, like those at Sundance and Berlin, you feel the urge to boo, it's probably not because of the violence, but sadly because it's not all that good.