Here's the conundrum with "The Killer Inside Me": It's well-made, yet difficult to recommend. It looks great, a mix of parched West Texas vistas and lush interiors, yet portions of it are impossible to watch without wincing.
The performances are consistently strong, though, especially from star Casey Affleck as a small-town deputy sheriff in the early 1950s whose polite demeanor and boyish features belie a savage homicidal streak. Director Michael Winterbottom also gets typically compelling work from Ned Beatty and Elias Koteas in small but crucial supporting roles. (If nothing else, this is yet another intriguing entry in the British director's eclectic filmography, which includes "The Claim," "24 Hour Party People" and "A Mighty Heart.")
But regardless of any other elements, there are a couple of scenes here that will have everyone talking, and will divide viewers' opinions of the entire movie.
Based on the pulp fiction novel by Jim Thompson, "The Killer Inside Me" tracks the steady unraveling of a sociopath, one hidden among the people we trust to be the good guys. Affleck's Lou Ford comes from an established family in Central City, and he has a lovely girlfriend in Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), who's pressuring him to get married.
Then one day, the sheriff (Tom Bower) sends him out to talk with Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who's ensnared the son (Jay R. Ferguson) of Chester Conway (Beatty), the town's power broker. His purpose is to run her out of town. But a couple of slaps from Joyce during their confrontation unleash pent-up aggressions and desires within Lou, and in no time they've launched into a full-blown affair: a toxic combination of rough sex and tender expressions of love.
Those scenes alone will make some viewers uncomfortable; what Lou ends up doing to Joyce as part of a larger plan — bashing her soft, gorgeous face until it resembles raw hamburger meat — may make you squirm and turn your stomach.
The intent, of course, is to show the depths of Lou's depravity, the conflicting urges that drive him. It's supposed to disturb us, but Winterbottom didn't need to go as far as he did; pulling back a bit would have allowed him to get his point across without alienating so much of his audience. Actually, if John Curran's adapted script had fleshed out Alba and Hudson's characters more thoroughly — had made even a vague attempt at addressing why they'd be drawn to this man and his sadistic ways — the fates that befall them would have had an even stronger impact.
At the end of Joyce's beating, Lou tells her softly: "I love you. Good bye." And throughout the entire film, Affleck's high-pitched, raspy monotone adds a creepy layer to such dark events. But she isn't his first victim, as we learn through flashbacks, nor will she be his last.
While the individual moments of brutality are powerful, the pacing of the film as a whole tends to lag. The suspense should be suffocating as Lou's crimes creep up on him, as he gets sloppy, as some of the snoopier folks in town get wise to his true nature. Paranoia begins to seep into his brain: "It was almost like there was a plot against me," he notes as part of the film's frequent narration.
But "The Killer Inside Me" remains as outwardly cool and collected as the killer himself, who's always clean-shaven, always dressed in a neatly pressed button-down shirt. He's an "American Psycho" in a cowboy hat.
"The Killer Inside Me," an IFC Films release, is rated R for disturbing brutal violence, aberrant sexual content and some graphic nudity. Running time: 108 minutes. Two stars out of four.