Lou Ford’s father was a doctor, and though he hides his intellect behind folksy platitudes Lou was more than capable of following dad’s footsteps. But Lou got stuck maybe, as deputy sheriff in the ironically named backwater of Central City, Texas, and as the reluctant betrothed to a local schoolteacher named Amy. The couple “just drifted together like straws in a puddle.” Those are Lou’s words, or rather Jim Thompson’s, whose 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me, one of this infernally gifted author’s most incisive portraits of a doomed and deranged mind, serves as the basis for the same-titled movie from director Michael Winterbottom. Scripted by John Curran with considerable fidelity to its source material, it’s an admirable, slick, horrifying and problematic adaptation, and is now available on home video.
Lou’s sent to run a prostitute named Joyce out of town, but when he delivers the message Joyce attacks him, and a cloud of ice drapes over Lou’s normally placid face. He retaliates with brute force, only to discover that beatings and bondage are Joyce’s cup of tea. They become lovers, but soon Lou gets an idea for a way to exact revenge on a local big shot, an idea that involves murdering both the big shot’s son and Joyce. Killing Joyce is supposed to exorcise “the sickness,” which is how Lou describes his fearsome urge to exact violence on others, women especially—women who love him most especially. But the sickness only spreads and one killing just leads to another, until simple plan slips into apocalyptic parody.
The casting of Casey Affleck as Lou is inspired both for his physicality—Thompson described Lou as lean and wiry, clean-cut, friendly, and 29—and his vocal peculiarity, that voice that creaks like an asthmatic 12-year-old. Affleck was the best thing in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and exhibits similarly creepy nuance and repressed ferocity here. Jessica Alba as Joyce is inspired in a different way. Her supple performance aside, it’s her sweet, heartbreaking smile that helps make it so difficult to witness Lou pounding her face in like a cantaloupe. The killings in The Killer Inside Me are appalling yet somehow detached at the same time, perhaps because Melissa Parmenter and Joel Cadbury’s score is so heavy with portent it takes you out of the moment.
Stunning moments abound, not the least being Lou’s final encounter with Amy, smartly played by Kate Hudson. But there are other issues keeping The Killer Inside Me from being as penetrating as it could have been and more alienating that it probably needs to be. There’s a moment in the novel where Lou explicitly states that he is literally writing what we’re reading, which we ultimately come to realize is deliciously nonsensical. Thompson was a masterful handler of the unreliable narrator, and many of the claims made in Lou’s first-person account become suspect. This is a precarious thing to realize on screen since the imagination is so much more powerful and flexible than the framed, explicit image, particularly when trying to register Thompson's violence. To read it is deeply disturbing; to see it is merely disgusting.