Based on the novel by acclaimed hard-boiled author Jim Thompson, it would be easy to believe this tale of murder, revenge, and lust set in 1950s West Texas to be a dark film noir. That seems to be what director Michael Winterbottom would be going for, with scenes that alternate between shadowy interiors, dimly-lit back-country roads, and sunny Texas summer days. But despite the source material and Winterbottom’s attempts to ape the look of classic film noir, the final results are closer to a Rob Zombie-style horror film that seeks to shove the audience’s face in scenes of abhorrent violence.

The setup certainly plays into noir traditions, with Sheriff’s Deputy Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) falling into instant lust (love?) with prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba). As they bond through their mutual appreciation of S&M, Joyce comes up with a plot to blackmail $10,000 from the son of the local construction kingpin, Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). What initially looks like a traditional film noir plot that will play out over the film’s entire running time is abruptly interrupted by two brutally violent murders that reveal Lou to be a psychopathic killer. The rest of the film follows Lou as he kills people and concocts bigger and bigger lies to stay out of jail.

It’s hard to tell if Winterbottom intended the film as a subversion of the genre, or if he honestly thought he was making an old-school film noir. I suspect that he was trying to pull one over on the audience, starting in one genre, setting up the expectations, and then veering violently into another type of film entirely. That kind of film can work if it has a strong enough internal logic to pull off the switch and it remains entertaining.

Those two criteria are where the film falls apart. From the start, I never understood Lou’s plan. He didn’t seem to be in it for the money, nor did his plans for revenge of a past crime ever make much sense. Even if those details had been clearer, the film still would have failed on the entertainment front. Call me old-fashioned, but I find nothing entertaining about watching protracted scenes of a serial killer beat and kick defenseless women to death. I have enough respect for Winterbottom and the films he has made across his career that I’m sure his purpose was to repel the audience, not titillate. Perhaps he intends The Killer Inside Me to be a comment on movie violence in the style of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Perhaps the worst crime the film perpetrates is the wasting of a good cast (Hudson is surprisingly effective as Lou’s loving girlfriend) and stellar cinematography by Marcel Zyskind. Their work always keeps the film watchable, even as the story and brutal violence tries to push the audience away.

When the film turned to bouts of self-parody in the third act, I knew that Winterbottom had lost control of the proceedings. As events finally wound down to a ridiculously over-the-top apocalyptic ending, I was relieved that it was over and I could go home to take a shower and put the experience behind me.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

Comments (2)

On July 26, 2010 at 6:24 PM, Andrew wrote...

Damn! I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Read the novella a month ago and, dark as it was, it was also an amazing satire of smalltown life, couched in a sinister pulp story.

I’ll probably see it anyways, but my hopes aren’t that high that Winterbottom got the intricacies of the story right.

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On July 26, 2010 at 10:15 PM, Matt Wedge wrote...

Outside of what seemed like Winterbottom’s occasional attempts to subvert noir conventions, there really were no elements of satire in the finished film. It really felt like he lost control of the story and fell in love with trying to shock the audience through the merciless scenes of Lou killing people and flashbacks to childhood sexual abuse. These scenes were just as upsetting as they should have been, but Winterbottom couldn’t solve the puzzle of how to create a compelling narrative around them. It was really a disappointing experience.

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