Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty
The prolific British director film-maker Winterbottom, whose credits include The Road to Guantanamo and A Mighty Heart, is no stranger to controversy. But not even his most politically charged docu-dramas have caused quite the same stir as this stylish little psycho-thriller, which angered many film critics and even reportedly disgusted its own stars.
Beyond its few shocking scenes, however, this is a refreshingly grown-up take on an American literary classic, containing distant echoes of Roman Polanski's noir symphony Chinatown and David Lynch's nightmarish Blue Velvet. Based on a 1952 novel by the prolific pulp author Jim Thompson, Winterbottom's first American feature stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a small-town Texas deputy sheriff whose serene smile and courteous manners serve as a perfect disguise for his homicidal, savagely unhinged nature.
Jessica Alba plays the vampish good-time girl who enters into a secret relationship with Ford, while Kate Hudson rises above her typical rom-com persona as his superficially straight-laced fiancée. All three give excellent, subtle, measured performances.
As the action progresses, The Killer Inside Me becomes less a portrait of a serial killer and more a classic film noir. Ford may be a psychopath, but his dark deeds are facilitated by a web of vested interests including palm-greasing property developers, blackmailing union bosses and rule-bending police colleagues. Thompson, the son of a disgraced sheriff himself, clearly felt something was fundamentally rotten behind the sickly surface smile of 1950s America. Nicknamed the "dime-store Dostoevsky" and much admired by Stephen King, Thompson's 30-plus pulp thrillers have spawned dozens of films, most notably The Getaway and The Grifters. The Killer Inside Me already inspired a little-known 1976 adaptation, starring Stacy Keach as Ford.
Several projected remakes have come and gone since then, including a Tarantino version. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio were all mooted to star at different times. Although Ford's victims include men and women, it was Winterbottom's decision to show his brutal attacks on two female characters in unflinching real-time detail that proved highly contentious. These scenes are certainly stomach-churning, but the violence is swift and sparingly used, and actually quite mild compared with the average Tarantino or Coen brothers bloodbath.
These are partly matters of personal taste, of course. Doing the rounds of film festivals last year, Winterbottom seemed genuinely surprised at the anger he had provoked. But the director's critics mistake him for an old-fashioned auteur, as if he is the sole creator of his work, when he has always relied on strong screenwriters. As it happens, every unsavoury detail in The Killer Inside Me comes directly from the book. Ironically, this is probably the most restrained and faithful Thompson adaptation to date. Winterbottom's real weakness may lie in his detached docu-drama style, refusing to judge his characters or sensationalise their actions. This helps explain why many of his films, this one included, feel a little perfunctory and heartless. All the same, The Killer Inside Me is unquestionably a serious-minded, high-quality work. Wherever you stand on screen violence, it is worth seeing for Affleck alone, chillingly charming, the original American Psycho.