Film Review: The Killer Inside Me

Gripping and disturbing new screen adaptation of the Texas-set Jim Thompson crime novel.

“Maybe you are who you are and that’s just that. How and when you got that way doesn’t make any difference…there just isn’t any sense in trying to be anything else.”

It’s hard to imagine what a sucker punch to the gut Jim Thompson’s novel about a genial sheriff whose Southern-fried charm lies lightly over a seething pit of sociopathic rage was back in the days when everybody and his brother wasn’t an armchair expert in serial-killer pathology. But close to 60 years after The Killer Inside Me was first published, it still packs a wallop and director/co-screenwriter Michael Winterbottom nails both the tragedy and the pitch-black humor.

Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) was born and raised in Central City, Texas, as nice a small town as you could ever want to see. Unless, of course, you look closely enough to notice that local businessman Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) has gobbled up just about everything worth having for himself and his idiot son Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson), or that most everyone who works closely with Lou—like, say, Sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower)—is always throwing him little sideways glances, the way people try to keep an eye on that apparently friendly but awfully toothy dog whose leash looks a little frayed.

The trouble begins when Lou, who’s been engaged to respectable Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) for so long even she’s started to wonder whether he ever intends to marry her, is dispatched to roust prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), who’s set up shop on the outskirts of town. It’s not that Joyce isn’t conducting her business in an acceptably suitable low-key manner: She is. But Elmer Conway has taken a shine to her and that just won’t do.

Unfortunately, Lou finds a sort of kindred spirit in Joyce, the match that ignites the gasoline coursing through his veins. And her plan to blackmail Chester Conway so she and Lou can blow town and start anew somewhere—just about anywhere else, as long as it’s far away—gives him an ugly little idea. The subsequent domino effect bares Lou’s darkest secrets and leaves Central City so spattered with blood that the town fathers might as well rename it Sin City and be done with it.

Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me is the second movie version of Thompson’s novel, following a 1976 version that starred Stacy Keach and Susan Tyrrell. Keach was a good Lou Ford, but Affleck is a great one, in part because his oddly high-pitched, slightly squeaky voice gives Lou’s disingenuous folksiness a grating, fingernails-on-blackboard edge that hints at his dangerously divided nature long before the film puts its cards on the table. Affleck’s Lou is the classic unreliable narrator in the sense that you can’t always trust his version of the facts. But when it comes to what he feels Lou never lies, and Affleck’s reading of Lou’s observation that “I got a foot on both sides of the fence. I can’t move…all I can do is wait until I split right down the middle,” is nothing short of chilling.

Alba, by contrast, can’t hold a candle to ’70s anti-ingénue Tyrrell’s Joyce Lakeland: Alba always looks like buffed-and-polished movie star playing at being a tumbleweed hooker, while Tyrrell is so convincingly broken, disillusioned and worn stupid that she’s painful to watch. All that said, Winterbottom’s version has the edge: The supporting cast is incredibly strong, from Beatty to Simon Baker, Bill Pullman and Elias Koteas, star of the earlier Thompson adaptation Hit Me (1996), and the atmosphere of sun-baked menace is so stultifying that it’s hard to breathe. If that’s not Thompson to a Texas T, I don’t know what is.