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As much as we may hate and fear them when they're on the local news, in the movies we love our serial killers and psychopaths, men-- they're almost always men-- hiding in plain sight with placid features and mild demeanors, coming out at night to kill and destroy. When The Killer Inside Me was written as a novel by Jim Thompson in 1952, it might have seemed shocking to spend time inside the mind of a guy who gets a sexual kick out of beating women with a belt before punching them in the face. But in 2010, in a film directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck, it's yet another disturbing and painful descent into a sociopath's mind-- both shocking and overly familiar.
Affleck plays nicely with his young looks and soft voice to become Lou Ford, the small-town Texas sheriff's deputy engaged to a sweet local girl (Kate Hudson) and friendly with all the local big deals, but harboring a whole plethora of dark secrets. For starters he raped a 5-year-old in his childhood, only to pin it on his older brother who later died in what may or may not have been an accident. His mom molested him in return, and apparently it all combined to give Lou a taste for spanking and hitting women like a local prostitute (Jessica Alba) who falls into bed with him immediately after he hits her in the face.
Things with the prostitute get a lot more complicated when Lou conspires to rip off a local oil tycoon by killing both him and the girl-- a pair of staged murders must lead to more, of course, and soon Lou is a full-fledged serial killer with local authorities played by Elias Koteas and Simon Baker hot on his tail. There are a lot of things that don't make sense about the whole scenario, including the fact that Kate Hudson stays with him, the fact that he isn't thrown into the clink the minute they have evidence to connect him to the murder (which happens pretty much instantly), or Lou's harebrained idea to blame the murders on a kid with an airtight alibi. And that's all before Bill Pullman shows up raving at a lunatic asylum and rattling off metaphors about lawn weeds.
Apparently this is all part of the book, but Winterbottom makes no effort to tie it into meaningful narrative-- great film noirs rely on great mysteries or intrigues at their center, but this one is just a muddle. And despite Affleck's efforts in the central role, Lou is a completely unbearable figure, snide and rude in public and unspeakably, horribly violent at home. The film's violence is what's got everyone talking, and while it's debatable whether the movie shares Lou's own misogyny, the camera does take a certain delight in shocking us by showing repeated shots of Jessica Alba's face being beaten to pulp. When men are killed in the film they're shot cleanly or dispatched with offscreen, but the women suffer brutally-- and you have to wonder if Lou is the only one enjoying it.
Some may love the Lynchian darkness at the heart of Killer Inside Me, but again, that's something that's been done to death. The movie doesn't just feel like punishment, but cliched punishment, and feels as nasty as the character it follows.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.