The other day, my girlfriend texted me. I didn't receive the text when it was sent because I had my phone turned off (that's right, not silenced, off like it should be) because I was in a movie theater. When I told her I had just been out at the movies, she asked what I had seen that night. "If you saw Eclipse before I did I'll be pissed," she said, half joking. I responded that I had seen a film that was probably the polar opposite of anything Twilight-related*: Michael Winterbottom's the Killer Inside Me.
The Killer Inside Me premiered at Sundance earlier this year and earned both praise and condemnation for its graphic sex and violence, most of which is targeted at its two female stars Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. Director Winterbottom has made a very unsettling film, perhaps not so much as fellow IFC pickup Antichrist but one that caused its fair share of queasiness on the part of the author as well as at least one walk-out at the packed Manhattan showing.
The trick with films like this one that desire to tell a story about violence in a serious way is to make sure that it doesn't become gratuitous, pornographic even. There's also the matter of making what's shown is effective, so as not to violate the oft-mentioned rule that offscreen murders are more terrifying that one's shown up close. Of the many murders in the Killer Inside Me, only one is mentioned and not shown in graphic detail and Winterbottom makes that act of witnessing brutality go a long way.
Casey Affleck (how long has it been since we no longer have to mention that he's Ben Affleck's brother?) stars as Lou Ford, a West Texas deputy sheriff. Ford is a respected member of his oil boom town's community, normally quiet and reserved and a responsible and trustworthy law enforcement figure. But inside him, there's a killer. For reasons hinted at in flashbacks and interior monologues, Ford is a violent sociopath. He begins a sadomasochistic relationship with a prostitute (Alba) whilst carrying on with his girlfriend (Hudson) and soon enough, it becomes harder and harder to conceal his "sickness" and he's knee deep in a series of murders.
Based on a pulp novel by Jim Thompson, Killer Inside Me wears its noir credentials on its sleeve. You've got your voiceover narration from the protagonist, your titilating sex, your femme fatale, and corrupt small town politics. The twist being of course that instead of the cop or detective, the killer is the protagonist. And of course, all along Ford is technically trying to catch himself. Seeing him have to do more and more to cover up his secret is a real thrill, knowing that at any minute the house of cards could come tumbling down and he could snap, revealing his terrible secret.
Affleck has the noir angle down pat. If you haven't seen him as the private eye main character inGone Baby Gone, do so immediately. He trades in the streetsmart swagger of his character in that film for a "Gee shucks, miss" veneer of innocence in this one. If one could hide the title and plot of this movie from someone before showing it to them, they might never see what's coming. Of course, it gets bloody real quick so this really wouldn't be worth it, and chances are tricking someone into seeing a movie which features both of its major female characters suffer vicious beatings at the hand of its protagonist will lose you friends real quick.
That brings us of course to the violence. By choosing to show us the brutal, disturbing acts Ford visits upon his victims, Winterbottom makes it all the worse. Knowing that Affleck's character murders people in such savage ways is one thing, but when it's show point-blank to the audience it becomes truly awful. I think comparisons can be made to American Psycho, another film about an unlikely serial killer, but Killer Inside Me lacks the dark humor that makes Patrick Bateman's story so remarkable. I keep wanting to come back to Bret Easton Ellis' blood-soaked Wall Street and revisit his yuppie serial killer, but I think one session with the Killer Inside Me is enough for now. It's just too dark to bear.
Final verdict: 51 Congos
*I say this with trepidation because I think that even showing women brutalized as helpless victims of a serial killer is more empowering than as passive birthing vessels in a Mormon abstinence PSA. I know which film I'd rather show my daughter.