If you’re a fan of Jim Thompson, Michael Winterbottom’s scrupulously faithful adaptation of his extraordinary 1952 novel will be fascinating, if not entirely satisfactory. Those unacquainted with his work, on the other hand, may find “The Killer Inside Me” an unsatisfying mixture of the prosaic and the unflinchingly brutal. Of course, there’s always the chance that an uninitiated viewer will find it revelatory and go on to devour Thompson’s books. Given their quality, it’s worth taking the chance.
“Killer,” which was filmed once before—in 1976 by Burt Kennedy, starring Stacy Keach—is the story of Lou Ford, a psychotic deputy in a Texas oil town, who commits a series of murders before coming to a literally explosive end. In its original form it’s told by Ford himself, who rejoices in manipulating everyone to his own purposes. So we’re forced to witness everything from his perspective, half in admiration at his cunning and half in disgust at his actions. In his spree he kills two men and is directly responsible for the death of a third, as well as two women whom he uses as pawns in his schemes. The men die relatively cleanly—in fact, one murder occurs unseen. But the assaults on the women are incredibly vicious and graphic.
Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran opt to replicate Thompson’s book as closely as possible. There are some inevitable elisions, of course, but for the most part the script hews very near to the text, lifting swaths of dialogue directly from the novel (including much of Ford’s voice-over narration). And though Casey Affleck underplays the glad-handing aspect of the book’s Ford, his remarkable aptitude for giving a simmering charge to the character’s stillness gives the deputy a quiet menace that’s extremely effective. He also handles Ford’s homicidal outbursts with genuinely frightening authenticity. His attack on Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), the prostitute he’s bedded but pulverizes in order to deflect suspicion for another murder from himself, is so brutally realistic that it actually makes us flinch. And that on Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), the long-time girlfriend he’s reluctant to wed, though less prolonged, is equally unsettling, though one may find his treatment of Johnny Pappas (Liam Aiken), a harmless kid he’s supposedly befriended, even more chilling, though not at all graphic.
This is pretty much Affleck’s show, but Winterbottom has mostly surrounded him with actors strong enough to bring Thompson’s ripe, untextured characters to life. Alba is overparted as Joyce, but Hudson brings a convincing combination of naïve romanticism and sad realism to Amy, while Elias Koteas oozes smarmy self-interest as a union boss and Tom Bower is all good-old-boy inefficiency as Lou’s oblivious boss. Add to them “The Mentalist” Simon Baker as the suspicious county DA, Ned Beatty as the local tycoon and Jay R. Ferguson as his lascivious son, Brent Briscoe as a would-be blackmailer and Bill Pullman as a flamboyant lawyer, and you have a colorful ensemble that Winterbottom, whose approach here is as leisurely as Ford’s aw-shucks persona, employs to good, if not outstanding, effect. The same might be said of the physical production; period and place are well embodied in the production design by Rob Simons and Mark Tildesley, Jeanette Scott’s sets and Lynette Meyer’s costumes, but Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography doesn’t bring an ideally moody sense to the images.
The result is a neo-noir that makes many of the right moves but doesn’t match its models from earlier decades. But if in the end doesn’t fully capture the malignant brilliance of its source, thanks especially to Affleck there’s enough Thompson in it to make that sick puppy Lou Ford a guy worth spending a couple of hours with—though he’s sure not somebody you’d want living in your neighborhood.