You know when you sort of just happen into a movie, knowing only the scant details (say, that you admire Jim Thompson’s dark, noirish fiction or that Michael Winterbottom is one of those directors not to miss) and end up open-mouthed, slack-jawed, wide awake?
Yesterday I caught a matinee of The Killer Inside Me, an indie film for sure, but also one of the most grotesque, artful, admirable films I’ve seen in a long time. Why is the film such a must see?
First, the violence is outrageously graphic, yet with purpose. There are gruesome, gasp-inducing acts of evil. The acts on screen are not for moviegoers who like their action movies with a lot of cliched showboating (the hoopla around the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz motorcycle gun fight comes to mind) or aesthetically stylized violence (in the vein of Kill Bill or The Matrix). This is violence intended to expose moviegoers to the screwed-up psychology of the film’s narrator, Lou, a psychopathic serial killer who has a double life as a small-town sheriff. As one reviewer described the film: “You were never going to get the Sunday School teachers for this movie anyway.”
But for all of the critical attention on the film’s violence, it is the performance of Casey Affleck that transforms this story from Hollywood schlock to Oscar-worthy consideration.
Affleck plays the film’s killer and protagonist, Lou. He’s got the most serene and creepy, thin-lipped smile throughout this film. As a viewer, you veer constantly between complete trust and silent horror. That smile hides it all.
When Affleck first appears, you’re thrown off by the boyish looks and his voice, which still seems to carry an air of teenage angst. Yet when he remains still, his face frozen, you know this is not a boy. When he walks down the hallway of a dank jail after murdering a young boy and casts a wicked, direct gaze at the camera, you’re chilled to the bone. I had forgotten how powerful Affleck was in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That movie was about showcasing Affleck’s vulnerability; in contrast The Killer Inside Me highlights the young actor’s duality–his ability to embody the ingenue and the psychopath at the same time.
As Winterbottom says about his desires for Affleck’s character:
The Lou, as he sees himself, is different to the Lou he acts to the world. He puts on this front for the world and then when he’s at home, he’s a different person, so you want to constantly trying to work out “What is really going on in his head?” “What does he believe?” “What doesn’t he believe?” “What bit is the fake bit where he’s real?” “How much does he see that what he is doing makes no sense?” “How much is he lost in his world?”
He’s a very unreliable narrator in the book and you have to have that sense of someone you are trying to work out, really. I think Casey is a great actor generally, but I think that’s his particular strength, that he is able to make you curious about what’s going on inside his head.
Such an amazing movie. Dark, dark, dark–unapologetically so.
The Killer Inside Me is contemporary film noir (and exceeds, in quality, Thompson’s previous efforts to translate his pulp fiction to the big screen, like After Dark, My Sweet); similar to the faux-innocent suburban idyll of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, this film attempts to show evil as it manifests itself in ordinary men.
Also shocking are the moments–however small–of clarity and empathy within this man’s convoluted heart. For example, a moment when Lou pauses in the midst of a violent murder to read his newspaper and acknowledge his victim’s efforts to reach pathetically for her black purse: it’s pure clarity for the killer, and may even be the seed–untended, of course–of love. Unfortunately, Thompson never allows his characters the release of a proper dénouement. Lou is a killer at heart, and Winterbottom–a masterful storyteller–know how to squash any empathy we feel for Lou when he returns to his savage ways.
The Killer Inside Me is a visually stunning, absurd, unapologetically violent film. Forsake the bubble gum out there and go see this dark little gem.