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Early scenes can have a profound impact. With a strong opening, it is easy to forgive later missteps; conversely, a poor opening can derail a movie from the get-go.   Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, unfortunately, is an example of the latter. It’s not the source material, a novel by pulpist Jim Thompson , for a number of Thompson adaptations have been successful.  It’s not the acting, for Casey Affleck has the polite-but-crazy act down pat. The misstep, I think, is the inability/reluctance to illuminate the motivations of Lou Ford, the psychopathic anti-hero. Handsomely mounted and with an evocative sense of place, Winterbottom’s work deflates as it offers little insight into its shocking violence.

On the surface, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Affleck) is a likable guy. He presides over his West Texas town with quiet confidence, and is always polite to his neighbors. Unlike most Texas sheriffs (I’m guessing), he’s also got an intellectual streak – he listens to opera, reads voraciously, and is adept at the piano. Beneath the veneer, however, is the titular killer. With startling brutality, Lou’s monstrous side appears in the first interaction with local prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba). They embark upon a torrid affair (Joyce likes the rough stuff), which lasts until Lou attacks Joyce and kills/frames her boyfriend. The town’s prosecutor (Simon Baker) and union boss (Elias Koteas) are suspicious, but Lou has convenient answers for all their questions. Lou uses his standing in the community to deflect the accusations – it helps that the sheriff (Tom Bower) and girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) think the world of him. He almost gets away with murder, but the killer is insatiable. Lies pile upon lies, and even as Lou’s world crumbles, he cannot subdue his darker impulses.

A few weeks ago Psycho celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, a fact I share to give a sense of how ubiquitous characters like Norman Bates and Lou Ford are. They even share a similar source of psychosis – in flashbacks to Lou’s childhood, we see how his mom blurred the line between sexuality and violence. The difference between Hitchcock and Winterbottom is the late director carefully revealed his character’s insanity. Winterbottom and co-screenwriter John Curran, on the other hand, have the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Within five minutes (a time interval that allows little context), Lou sadistically violates Joyce. Moments later the sexual assault becomes bizarrely consensual. Perhaps in Thompson’s novel there is a deeper explanation why this happens, but here it’s presented so early that exploitation forces distance from the action. Affleck and Alba make use of their gifts, yet their talent is immaterial because immediate shock hinders subsequent attempts at dramatic tension. Later Lou mercilessly beats more women – as before, he seems less like a monster and more like the result of a writer without ideas. The procedural elements are competent, but there’s no stake in what happens to Lou, so even his inevitable comeuppance grows tedious.

The title The Killer Inside Me suggests a separation between Lou and his murderous tendencies, yet Winterbottom clearly favors one side more than the other. In point of fact, I’ve abandoned discussion of entire subplots (important ones) simply because Lou’s dark side is handled too bluntly. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t find the movie offensive, nor did it inspire moral outrage. It’s just easy to lose interest in noir once human nature becomes secondary to visceral experience. I can see why Winterbottom chose to explore Ford this way, but his bold salvo didn’t have the desired payoff. By focusing on the “why” and less on the “how,” I’m sure the director’s next effort will be far more rewarding.

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