Michael Winterbottom's "The Killer Inside Me," starring Casey Affleck as a small-town deputy sheriff with a big-time psychosis, is little more than torture porn tricked out in art-house finery. That is the bigger crime here.
Killers, particularly of the sociopathic strain of Affleck's Lou Ford, can make for seductive characters. Whether it's Tommy Lee Jones turn as the seriously bent Gary Gilmore of "The Executioner's Song" or the sarcastic shot aimed at a media culture in love with violence that Oliver Stone took with his "Natural Born Killers," we want to understand all that separates us from them.
But somewhere not long after Lou's first punch rips open Joyce's (Jessica Alba) face, the pretty hooker Affleck's deputy is encouraging to leave Central City, the beating slips into gratuitous territory. No insight, no irony and no echoes of Peckinpah, De Palma or Tarantino whistle across these Texas plains; "No Country for Old Men" brutal artistry either. What's left isn't pretty — or all that interesting.
This stumble is something of a surprise given the pedigree of the participants. The Jim Thompson crime fiction tale of small town desolations is a classic. Director Winterbottom knows his way about twisted psyches and retribution stories as he showed in "A Mighty Heart" with Angelina Jolie. Affleck is an exceedingly nuanced actor whose excellent work drew an Oscar nod for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The pieces, however, never fall into place.
Instead, violence becomes the default for story and character, with bodies, primarily female ones, bashed — brutally, relentlessly, excessively, bloodily — in front of the unblinking lens of director of photography Marcel Zyskind, a frequent Winterbottom collaborator.
The 1950s era West Texas, where the film is set, is spot on in its dust and isolation, the sort of everyone-knows-everyone community where familiarity hangs heavy like a noose. On the surface, Lou Ford is just another good ol' boy. In truth, he's anything but good and barely able to breath, having to keep "the sickness" and the secrets at bay.
With screenwriter John Curran hewing closely to the style and the substance of Thompson's novel, the film is narrated by Lou with Affleck all loose limbs and easy patter slipping right inside the deputy's skin. But looks are deceiving, and the lethal moral of this story, as Lou pulls us right into all his dark places, a twisted landscape where death hovers like a ravenous vulture forever on the prowl.
The plot itself is dense with serious themes that include childhood abuse, class conflicts, psycho-sexual urges and other soul-destroying demons that essentially go nowhere. Instead most of the film is spent with Lou offering up "aw shucks" lines to fend off the growing suspicions that behind his apple pie smile lurks a sadistic killer.
Winterbottom uses the rest of the cast like witnesses for the prosecution, a way to parse through Lou's motivation, including the DA (Simon Baker) who thinks he's guilty and Lou's girlfriend Amy (a brown-haired, chain-smoking Kate Hudson), who fears it but doesn't want to believe it.
Alba's and Hudson's girls are little more than dolls on their way to being discarded, so there's not much for them to do but look pretty, then not so pretty. That they are turned on by the pain Lou inflicts seems offered up as a sort of excuse. But any real window into his psyche has been nailed shut.
Lou's interior madness seems closed to Affleck as well. He never finds the black heart that should send chills whenever his hand clenches into a fist, or the animal magnetism that would make plausible the women's willingness to stay despite the pain.
Without that, the soft bellies that suffer those savage kicks, the pillowy lips cut to shreds by barbaric punches, the lingerie-clad bodies slammed against walls, are just psychosexual toys offered up to the paying customers. As for me, I'm not buying.