'I know you'll be as gentle and pleasant as you can be," the sheriff says to his trusted deputy, Lou Ford, dispatching him to warn off a woman of ill repute who has set up business in a bungalow on the edge of town.
Right. In The Killer Inside Me, a brutally compelling noir based on pulp god Jim Thompson's 1952 novel, Lou Ford's gentle and pleasant demeanor only goes so far. He'll tip his Stetson and greet the citizens of Central City with a "Howdy, ma'am" or a "Good morning," and he'll sit at home at the end of the day listening to Mahler and Donizetti, and he'll narrate his story in a soft-spoken voice-over that seduces the audience, all twangy and calm.
But by the time the ace British director Michael Winterbottom has finished with the tale of this West Texas lawman in the early 1950s, and his liaisons with a prostitute, his romance with a girlfriend, and his not-altogether-upright involvement with a union boss, a construction baron, and his son, well, a whole bunch of people are dead.
Casey Affleck, Oscar-nominated for his work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (he was the coward), stars as the deputy Lou Ford, and he gives this character an easygoing, bone-chilling charm. (Two memorably twisted gentlemen with the same surname, go figure.)
The Killer Inside Me is tough, disturbing stuff: We're tagging along with a sociopath as he explains himself, reveals himself, works things out inside his head.
Affleck couldn't be better. And if Lou's a little kinky, taking his belt to Joyce Lakeland, the prostitute played by Jessica Alba, she doesn't seem to mind. But by the time he's through with her, the bleak, bloody pummeling is devastating.
Like his protagonist, Winterbottom doesn't let up: He trains the camera on the actress' face, then cuts to Affleck's Ford with his leather gloves, socking away like a fighter in the ring. Back and forth, back and forth. It's killing.
The Killer Inside Me was booed at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Folks walked out. So be warned: This isn't easy to watch, and it will stay with you for days. But it is also one of the strongest adaptations of a Thompson book, up there with Stephen Frears' The Grifters and James Foley's underappreciated After Dark, My Sweet. It's a psychologically haunting portrait of an extreme personality, an amoral, violent, lonely man.
Shot by Marcel Zyskind, who has worked with Winterbottom on a number of projects (including A Mighty Heart with Angelina Jolie), The Killer Inside Me captures the dusty light of the West, the roads out of town that roll off into the brown hills, the big cars, the big sky. The film boasts a soundtrack with a terrifically tricky blend of country and western gems (Spade Cooley's "Shame Shame on You"), standards ("Fever," from Little Willie John) blues, and symphonic pieces.
In every respect, this is great filmmaking.
Ned Beatty, Tom Bower (as Lou's boss, the sheriff), Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman, and Simon Baker show up in small turns, notable characters, in the best noir tradition. And Kate Hudson, as Lou's longtime gal, Amy, goes places she hasn't onscreen before. Like Alba, Hudson puts herself out there. What happens isn't pretty, what happens isn't right, but what happens in The Killer Inside Me happens. It's the dark, dark side of the human soul.