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Movie Review

The Killer Inside Me

Like its antihero, ‘The Killer’ lacks heart

Casey Affleck stars as Lou Ford, a young Texas deputy sheriff with a psychotic streak who likes to hit women and holds a grudge against the local big cheese. Casey Affleck stars as Lou Ford, a young Texas deputy sheriff with a psychotic streak who likes to hit women and holds a grudge against the local big cheese. (Chris Hanley/IFC Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 2, 2010

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When Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the 1952 Jim Thompson novel “The Killer Inside Me’’ played film festivals this spring, audiences gasped and fled up the aisles, repelled by sequences in which the film’s small-town antihero graphically beats two women to death. At Q&A sessions after the screenings, the director was assailed by angry moviegoers who berated him on grounds of feminism, humanism, violence in the pop marketplace, and plain old good taste.

Everyone seemed to miss the point — that the film’s unrepentant nastiness was right there in the book. That’s why pulp novels existed in the first place: as outlets for all the lurid sin and ugliness the mid-20th century mainstream repressed. Thompson envisioned a nice young Texas deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, who behind his shades and yes-ma’am exterior is a seething caldron of psychosis. Lou’s the down-home equivalent of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley — both men are soulless and resourceful, although Lou has an additional mean streak — and as you read Thompson’s flat prose, the novel keeps pulling you further into its dank, sadistic basement, banging your head on the steps as you go.

So why turn “Killer’’ into a movie? Winterbottom has made a precise re-creation of the events in the novel without ever answering that question. Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, and the performance is very good — a little surprising, given the actor’s soft, high voice and slender bearing. You expect a Lou with more meat and muscle on his bones, if not an ox like Stacy Keach in the unengrossing 1976 movie version. Still, Affleck knows how to chat up the old ladies while letting us sense the danger in Lou’s coiled stillness.

Lou has been nursing a grievance against the local big cheese, Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), that involves a stepbrother framed years ago for something Lou did. With the appearance of Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), an angelic whore living on the edge of town, the deputy sees his chance. Chester’s no-good son Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson) is in love with Joyce, but Lou is the man in her bed and her heart. It helps that he likes to hit women and she likes being hit; now as in 1952, the story reveals a carnival of transgressive kink under the gingerbread trim of small-town America.

There are other players in the drama — Lou’s fiancee Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), whose pressed white gloves cover dirty hands and thoughts; a drunken sheriff (Tom Bower); a slick district attorney (Simon Baker) — but the driving force is Lou and the tangle of plot unfolding in his head. Critical to the success of his plans is the murder of a major character, and it is this scene that will push “Killer’’ over the edge of acceptability for the majority of moviegoers, as Lou methodically pummels the character’s face into bloody meat in close-up.

If anything, it’s less explicit than in the book. But — and this is a big but — there’s a difference between prose, where readers can indulge their imaginations as much or as little as they feel comfortable with, and film, where our only other option is to look away. Winterbottom is a born experimenter, and he has always been interested in putting as much “truth’’ on the screen as possible — in 2004’s “9 Songs’’ he tried to tell a love story with actual sex. The nature of that truthiness changes depending on the project, though, and by filming “The Killer Inside Me’’ with fetishistic fidelity to the source, he wants to see if real pulp — the interior-monologue rot of Thompson’s novel — can be visualized using standard movie sets, props, actors, blood squibs.

He might even be calling Thompson’s misogyny to account. You enjoy brutality on the page? This, says the film, is what it looks like in the flesh. Now what do you think?

Well, maybe not. It’s hard to tell what the director is up to with “The Killer Inside Me.’’ The film is crisply shot, expertly paced, solidly acted, and it gets a goose when Bill Pullman shows up in the late innings as a good-old-boy lawyer. (By contrast, it’s never convincingly explained what stake the union official played by Elias Koteas has in the drama.) All that’s missing is a reason.

When a second character is brutally dispatched toward the end — again, with fewer awful details than in the book — we’re repelled by the violence but also by how little we’ve been made to care about the people being hurt. In “The Killer Inside Me,’’ Winterbottom does his damnedest to put us inside Lou Ford’s head, and the surprise is what a cold, uninteresting place it turns out to be.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom

Written by: John Curran, based on a novel by Jim Thompson

Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: R (disturbing brutal violence, aberrant sexual content, graphic nudity)

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