Lou Ford is a courteous, softly spoken cop in 1950s Texas. He has a sweetheart called Amy who dotes on him: the townsfolk think he's a stand-up guy. But when he was a kid, Lou's housekeeper got off on his spanking her. And this poor little fucked up kid grew up into the kind of guy who can only express love through violence. Lou is something of an enigma - he is alienated from himself - from real emotional engagement with others - and thus from the viewer. Far more intriguing, from a psychological standpoint, are the two women - his girlfriend and his hooker-mistress - who love him. It's mysterious that they love such an emotionally avoidant man - let alone that they continue to do so despite suffering at his hands. Maybe they too were fucked up by their parents? Maybe it's just another case of people being attracted to people whose pathologies enable their own.
Whatever the answer, this is not the kind of film that deals in straightforward answers. Rather, Michael Winterbottom gives us a more or less faithful adaptation of the celebrated pulp novel from Jim Thompson - its triumphs and failures in tact. The film works best as a sinister mood piece, anchored by the superb central performance of Casey Affleck and embedded in superlative production design. I was genuinely surprised that actresses known best for fluffy rom-coms - Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson - would want to appear in such a film, and yet more surprised to see how well they acted in the demanding supporting roles as Lou's mistress and girlfriend respectively. They really hold their own against a supporting cast of the calibre of Ned Beatty and Elias Koteas. This movie is worth watching for the quality of the performances and the cinematography alone.
Nonetheless, this is a flawed film. Yes, there's a crime caper that propels the plot, and some faint dramatic tension between the unions, big business, and a cover up, but this movie is basically a psycho-drama. The fault of the piece lies in the fact that, as psycho-drama, it always holds the viewer at a distance from the motivations of the three key characters. This makes for a frustrating film - a teasing provocation.
One final word about the violence in the movie. THE KILLER INSIDE ME got a lot of press coverage in the UK on account of its graphic depiction of violence against women. Moreover, the movie was accused of misogyny on the grounds that the women in the movie apparently get off on being victimised. To my mind, THE KILLER INSIDE ME is not at the extremes of graphic violence in cinema. Viewers used to the cinema of Haneke or Noe will have seen far worse. Moreover, there is no sense in which this film is "torture porn". Winterbottom's intentions are manifestly earnest. I also find accusations of misogyny misplaced. Yes, the fact that these women go back for more is disturbing. But surely the movie/book are saying something about a particular psychopathology - and in this case it happens to involve the man as sadist and women as masochists. But there is no general point to be made about the role of men and women in such relationships. After all, just look at the dependent relationship between Johnny Papas and Lou.
Additional tags: Mags Arnold, Melissa Parmenter, Tom Bower, Simon Baker, Liam Aiken, Jay R Ferguson, Jim Thompson
THE KILLER INSIDE ME played Sundance and Berlin 2010 and is currently on release in the UK, USA and Denmark. It opens next weekend in South Korea. It opens in August in Belgium and France; in September in Switzerland, Greece and Taiwan; in Finland and the Netherlands in October.