Dir. Michael Winterbottom
(2010, R, 109 min)
★ ★ ★

The duality at the heart of The Killer Inside Me gives it its dark fascination. Adapted from a 1952 novel by Jim Thompson, it tells the story of Lou Ford, a West Texas deputy sheriff who appears unassuming and gentlemanly but underneath harbors violent, misogynist impulses. He’s played by Casey Affleck, whose baby-faced handsomeness is put to good use. He seems gentle-natured, but Affleck conveys the emptiness underneath. In voice-over narration, he seems absent of emotion. In the murder scenes he shows neither relish nor remorse. That’s what makes him so scary — he represents not the dark side of humanity, but a void of humanity.

Lou is horrifically compelling, and when considering his particular brand of sociopathy the film is an excellent character study. But the story is less effective. One problem, I believe, is a disconnect between Lou’s pathology and the manner of his crimes. His first murder is ostensibly motivated by revenge. He targets the son of wealthy magnate Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), believing Chester was responsible for his brother’s death. He commits other murders to cover up the first one. But why is such a man, hardwired for violence since childhood, set off at this time, for these reasons. As a young teenager, he victimized a child, for no reason we can discern other than that he wanted to, and he let his brother take the fall; motive doesn’t seem to play a significant role in his desire to kill, so why in this film is he caught up in revenge and cover-ups? I was less involved by the workings of the plot than by the inner workings of the main character. It’s a tangled web he weaves, but I was more interested in the spider than the web.

The film has been criticized for its depictions of violence, in particular its violence against women, which is markedly more graphic and prolonged than its violence against men. But director Michael Winterbottom, in assuming Lou’s depraved point of view, shows violence — and shows women — with the same cold, merciless detachment as his protagonist. The result is often extremely unpleasant, but to good effect. Winterbottom, though guilty of some amateurish Freudian analysis in flashbacks to Lou’s mother, takes us into the grimly detailed interior world of a madman. Our impulse is to recoil, shut our eyes, look away. That’s what distinguishes a rational mind from a mind like Lou’s.