Review: The Killer Inside Me

JESS STEWART: ‘By making us turn away in disgust, Winterbottom hasn’t failed as a director: he’s achieved his goal exactly.’

Casey Affleck Jessica Alba Jim Thompson kate hudson Lou Ford Michael Winterbottom Sundance

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

As the credits began to roll at Sundance festival for the premiere of The Killer Inside Me earlier this year, a woman was reported to have leapt up and declared "I don't understand how Sundance could book this movie! How dare you? How dare Sundance?” before walking out of the showing. Oh, dear. Not quite the good start director Michael Winterbottom may have been looking for.

The film has, in fact, been blasted for its supposedly misogynistic violence against women from the word GO. But as Winterbottom displays a fresh-faced, utterly charming and yet wholly terrifying Casey Affleck on our screens, there’s much more to this film than many have come to realise.

Based on Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel of the same name, The Killer Inside Me follows the story of Lou Ford, a small-town Sheriff with an insatiable desire to kill. On the surface, he is all perfection: a pretty face, a steady girlfriend, and of course, polite manners – but after beginning a dangerous affair with local prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba), his sadistic characteristics rise to the surface. Their affair is a strangely disturbing amalgam of sex and brutality, sparking a frightening succession of murders as Ford allows his violent alter-ego to rise to the surface. “Nobody has it coming. That’s why nobody can see it coming.” It’s a chilling premise that Winterbottom realises to its full potential.

And, in many respects, the criticism that this controversial film has garnered is strikingly appropriate. The violence against women is, with no other word to describe it, sickening. As we watch Ford batter Joyce until her face resembles little more than a plate of baked beans, it’s difficult not to turn away in revulsion. It is exactly this kind of ‘anti-female’ violence that has been attacked as misogynistic – which, regarding Ford’s character, it undeniably is. But the film does not side with Ford. It retains a disturbing distance from him, and the audience can watch his actions without fully understanding them. By showing these misogynistic events, the film has by no means earned the title of misogynist itself: it’s merely highlighted a huge problem in this character’s make-up, and in society as a whole. Winterbottom has not shied away from these frightening and controversial issues – something we should surely give him credit for. He’s a brave sod, if nothing else.

The entire film is so intense, so wrapped up in the psychological issues of its antagonist, that it is both a great but an entirely uncomfortable one to watch. Winterbottom makes superb use of the soundtrack, of voiceovers, and of editing to give a kind of noir smoothness to the entire affair – far removed from the style of his previous films – and one that makes the eeriness of Ford’s actions all the more potent. The only issue comes with perhaps too much glossiness at times – most notably in some of the sex scenes, threatening to turn the film into an overtly sexualised Hollywood romp. For the main part, however, it retains its grittiness and its dangerously sharp edge. And the cast shine in their respective roles. 

Casey Affleck, above all, achieves a character that is both terrifying and strangely attractive, horrific but not completely repulsive: a fine balance which, unachieved, may have pushed the film into the boundary of the unwatchable. In the end though, it’s his very charm and normalcy, his veneer of etiquette, which make his underlying demon so totally petrifying. Likewise, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson put in solid performances as the women in his life, tackling characters almost as complex as Ford’s own, and shouldering off their clueless type-cast roles in recent action films and romantic comedies. And, if anyone looks close enough, they’ll find it’s these films that are the truly misogynistic ones. 

In the end, Winterbottom has made a great film. But it’s ultimately a difficult one to watch – which is exactly what it should be. We may be horrified, but what other reaction is acceptable in response to a character as dark and sadistic as Ford’s own? By making us turn away in disgust, Winterbottom hasn’t failed as a director: he’s achieved his goal exactly.