The Killer Inside Me's title character projects a deceptively wholesome image. The boyish, 29-year-old Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) serves as a deputy in Central City, a booming Texas oil town in the 1950s. He doesn't carry a gun, preferring to pack an arsenal of homespun adages, and his white hat seems almost too large for his narrow head and neck. Lou comes across as a junior version of Andy Griffith, but in his heart, he's more akin to a sociopathic murderer like No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh.
Director Michael Winterbottom puts Lou under surveillance to investigate the nature of human evil, particularly male brutality against women. With screenwriter John Curran, Winterbottom adopts the book of the same name by legendary noir pulp novelist Jim Thompson, who penned the sources of gritty films such as The Grifters, The Getaway and After Dark, My Sweet. In Winterbottom's film, the performances and period texture perfectly capture the novel's mood, but the director's love of cinematic artifice blunts the source material's narrative force.
At the film's beginning, everyone — possibly even Lou himself — perceives him as a good-natured peace officer. When he pays a professional call on a knockout prostitute named Joyce (Jessica Alba) and gently tries to run her out of town, her furious indignation causes something in Lou to snap. The two fall on each other and embark on a secret, S&M-fueled affair. When Lou drives out to her place, he passes oil derricks that do to the Earth what he plans to do to Joyce. But there's nothing wrong with a few kinks between consenting adults.
Joyce, like any classic femme fatale, proposes that the couple use sordid means to achieve a better life. They embark on an illicit blackmail plot involving the none-too-bright son of a local land baron (Ned Beatty). Lou seems to go along with it, but has ulterior motives far darker than the usual broke, besotted fall guy in a film noir. The audience soon realizes that for Lou, murder and cruelty aren't so much a means, as an end unto themselves.
The Killer Inside Me has already become notorious for a shocking scene in which Lou puts on gloves and methodically punches a beautiful woman's face to a pulp. Flashbacks indicate that the origins of Lou's monstrousness lie in his childhood, particularly due to inappropriate, possibly abusive relationships with exploitative grown-ups. The film suggests that Lou grew up with a warped, festering psyche that only needed a catalyst like Joyce to make it explode.
Affleck gives a chilling performance, his ruthless, reptilian eyes contrasting with his high delivery, as if his voice never stopped cracking in adolescence. Alba and Kate Hudson (as Lou's girlfriend Amy) give career-high performances as world-weary, slatternly women worthy of Tennessee Williams.
Winterbottom, however, proves far more interested in probing the enigma of Lou's personality than the narrative mechanics of thrillers. Plotting wasn't always Thompson's strong suit, but in Winterbottom's film, characters such as Elias Koteas' union bigwig pop in and out at random, usually lugging big clumps of exposition. Whether the authorities will catch Lou for his crimes never builds up much cat-and-mouse suspense.
Instead, Winterbottom attempts to convey the enigma of Lou's psyche with near-incessant sex scenes and the recurring use of opera and western swing as an ironic counterpart to his dark impulses. The Killer Inside Me doesn't really live up to its superb, Saul Bass-style opening credits scene accompanied by Little Willie John's "Fever." Winterbottom refuses to glorify violence and takes a stab at explaining human evil, but The Killer Inside Me never scores a direct hit on its intended thematic target.