Typecasting is a trap for actors, particularly when it's typecasting as any variety of villain.
Casey Affleck is one of those actors who's right on the bubble, having played heroes or quirky sidekicks -- but also having played creepy, interior characters so effectively, particularly in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford -- and now as Lou Ford in Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me. Perhaps he needs to play Henry Ford next -- or Gerald Ford.
Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me features Affleck as the film's narrator, a sheriff's deputy in a small town in early 1950s' Texas with a reputation as the ultimate straight arrow. But he harbors secrets, mostly of his own psychopathology, which begin to surface as he gets caught up in local tawdriness.
Specifically, he becomes part of a scheme to chase a local prostitute out of town. The hooker, whose name is Joyce (Jessica Alba), is involved with Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson), the son of local bigwig Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), who wants her out of his son's life. What no one knows is that Lou is, in fact, involved with Joyce as well, in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship.
Nor does anyone have a clue that Lou harbors homicidal impulses, which come into play when he takes the action into his own hands. He stages a brutal and unlikely murder-suicide scene between Elmer and Joyce, then pins it on a local juvenile delinquent.
Winterbottom's film has problems of tone, which shifts unexpectedly from period politesse to lurid pulp. The contrast is meant to shock but mostly it just jars, which is not quite the same thing. At times, there's a flat period feel reminiscent of The Last Picture Show, but it's at odds with the saturated, expressionistic colors that Winterbottom shifts into from time to time.
John Curran's script uses Lou's voiceover narration to tell the story, though he is far from a reliable narrator. Lou's shift from Boy Scout-ish deputy to cold-blooded killer is a leap the audience has to make on faith. While we get glimpses of Lou's childhood, they mostly have to do with establishing that he's been a bad seed -- if an unsuspected one -- all of his life. And Winterbottom portrays the violence in this film -- specifically the gruesome beating of the two women in Lou's life -- unsparingly, and unsettlingly.
Some have criticized the violence for its misogyny and its graphic depiction. It is wrenching and upsetting, to be sure. Is it egregious or gratuitous? Not within the context -- nor is it played for any sort of sick thrill. This isn't Hostel-style torture-porn, but realistic violence in service of a story and a specific character -- a sick puppy, to be sure.
Affleck has a remoteness that he is able to peel away when he needs. His motives are never clear, other than his inability to control murderous impulses toward the women who get to his heart. And he makes that emotional conflict plain; even Lou doesn't understand why he must do what he's doing. It's a compulsion, one he's helpless to resist and yet angry at having to carry through. And that anger only intensifies the violence, as though he ratchets it up in order to be finished that much more quickly.
If the plot of The Killer Inside Me seems flimsy -- even arbitrary and contrived -- well, that's an element of Thompson's stories: a fervid, almost feverish quality, a helplessness to deal with bad impulses and a quick canniness for covering one's tracks. That doesn't make Winterbottom's film any easier to swallow -- but here's a case where style (and the uber-creepy performance by Casey Affleck) inject the film with an energy and tension that almost compensate for its flaws.