Throughout his career, Michael Winterbottom has jumped from genre to genre, and his ability to pull off such vastly different movies is a rare talent. After tackling science fiction, a musical biopic, and a procedural docudrama, he puts his stamp on neo-noir with an adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel The Killer Inside Me.
noir antiheroes don't come too much darker than West Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) -- he's a sexual sadist and a sociopath, yet he respectfully addresses women as ma'am. As the movie opens, he's ordered to chase Joyce (Jessica Alba), a prostitute, out of town. But when the woman puts up a fight, Lou strikes her, and the physical violence turns her on. That ignites a torrid affair between the two -- a relationship Lou must hide from Amy (Kate Hudson), his regular girlfriend. When local bigwig Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) wants to pay Joyce to leave town because his son is in love with her, Chester orders Lou to drop off the money. Instead of following through on that plan, Lou beats Joyce to within an inch of her life and shoots the younger Conway dead. Now the lawman has to tell lie upon lie to keep the authorities from suspecting him, and all the while he's slowly becoming less able to keep his true nature hidden.
The movie is at its best when dealing with the disturbing relationship between Lou and Joyce. Casey Affleck is quite good as Lou -- he's monstrous, but he keeps Lou's most heinous behavior grounded in reality rather than playing him like a classic movie villain. He's so scary precisely because he seems like somebody you might actually meet. But the real surprise is Jessica Alba. A limited actress with a killer body and pouty lips, Alba is actually well-suited to play a femme fatale. And Joyce is a more complicated part than one might expect -- less a typical noir vamp than a classic tragic heroine done in by a fatal flaw that she can't overcome. Emotionally and physically, Joyce savors the sadomasochistic dynamic she shares with Lou, and while he knows he's lucky to come across someone so willing to let him indulge his instincts, it's still not enough to keep him from taking things to a murderous extreme. In one of Winterbottom's previous films, 9 Songs, he explored and defined his characters by their sexual behavior, and he returns to that topic here with shocking and effective results.
He's unquestionably a talented director, and The Killer Inside Me is, from a technical standpoint, close to flawless. The opening credits are simple and stylish, he evokes the '50s without showing off, and he explicitly presents acts of utter carnage without being exploitative about them -- he never puts us in the position to root for Lou. We are faced with unflinching examples of his psychotic behavior -- including one of the most brutal beatings you'll ever see -- but the movie never plays like we're supposed to enjoy his sadistic streak.
The Killer Inside Me boils down to a character study of just Lou, rather than Lou and Joyce. Sadly, with a little less than half of the film to go, Joyce is out of the picture and we already have a full handle on Lou, so there is nothing left for us to discover but how the plot plays out -- and since the story is secondary to the character, our interest flags. We grow as emotionally detached from the film as Lou is from his own life, and while that's an interesting psychological exercise, it doesn't exactly make for enthralling viewing. If only the whole film was as compelling as its first half, The Killer Inside Me might go down as a dark-hearted genre masterpiece, but as it stands now Winterbottom has fashioned one of the most disturbing character studies to come down the pike in a quite a while.