Tribeca Review: “The Killer Inside Me”

Novelist Jim Thompson brought a clarity and economy of words to the hard-boiled world of crime and duplicity he depicted. Converting the work of arguably the greatest American pulp novelist of the 20th century to the big screen is no easy task, a fact made all too apparent by director Michael Winterbottom’s hollow film adaptation of Thompson’s 1952 novel, “The Killer Inside Me.”

The story revolves around Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) and his small Texas town where things seem to move as slow as his drawl. Ford appears to be an affable simpleton, but beneath his dim exterior hides something darker still, a capacity for violence that can overtake him without warning.

Under pressure from the local clergy, Lou is asked by the sheriff to exile high-end prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), who has been operating on the outskirts of town. Their initial meeting touches off an increasingly violent and carnal relationship.

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Soon Ford sees a way to settle a score and get out of a jam, but it requires him killing Lakeland, in a scene that achieved instant infamy, as Ford literally beats her face to a pulp. The savagery is, at the very least, extremely difficult to watch. Winterbottom tries to use that jarring violence exploding from baby-faced Affleck to stun, hoping to keep the audience on its toes for the rest of the film. But by this time Ford’s already demonstrated his penchant for brutality, so the notion of him being a killer is very much on the audience’s radar by that point even if they weren’t tipped off by the film’s title.

Affleck is fine as Ford, but the performance begins leans too heavily on Cheshire cat grins when no one is looking. To labor the viewing further, Winterbottom makes some questionable choices. Incongruous arias and strings are the soundtrack of Lou’s deeds and the Texas landscape. Perhaps the director means it to be ironic and chilling, but it comes off as sort of tired and certainly out of step.

What makes Thompson’s novel so gripping is his ability to up the ante of tension, little by little, as Ford leaves a trail of bodies behind him. Ford’s world spins out of control and the more he tries to escape the noose fitted for his neck, the more bodies he must drop to elude it. But Winterbottom can’t seem to replicate that entrancing dread Thompson created in spades, nor get any type of traction with the material at all.

While the "The Killer Inside Me" certainly looks fine, it never seems to gather any type of rhythm. Long spells of monotony, punctuated by bursts of violence and one too many bland sex scenes make for a film that’s certainly no killer.

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