Not many films possess the mindset of a black widow — eager to lure you in, chew you up, and spit you out as if it were second nature. Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me is like that edacious arachnid, a purveyor of psychopathy in its most lurid form with a fiercely obstinate approach towards character analysis, and one that has (unsurprisingly) been criticized for its reluctance to adhere to genre. Assigned to play another guy by the name of Ford, Casey Affleck’s Lou is the Deputy Sheriff of a small American settlement who gets embroiled in an affair with the prostitute he’s supposed to be running out of town. As the title suggests, Lou’s indiscretions aren’t limited to adultery, and he soon has the blood of more than one unfortunate soul on his hands.
One of the accusations leveled at this film is that it glorifies violence toward women, and it’s true that Lou’s intertwined sexuality and aggression is a dominant feature. His first scene with prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba), for instance, ends in sexual masochism, which I imagine had a few people rolling their eyes. It seems this scene is meant to prove the film’s observations about sexual dependency, and the idea of violence as erotic and indulgent. Joyce’s expectations of Lou are so inherently languid that she projects her self-objectification as a means of survival — as a confirmation of her ideas about what/who men are supposed to be. The movie says more about prostitution and its psycho-sexuality in one scene — and through a secondary character no less — than 1971’s Klute does in its entire running time, and that’s without a knockout performance by Jane Fonda to anchor it.
The Killer Inside Me does, however, possess a menacing turn by Casey Affleck, who digs deep to give a dead-reckoned performance. The moment in which his solemn relief over the death of his mistress shifts into smugness and dread is one of the most insightful and brilliant scenes Killer has on offer. Affleck efficiently mirrors his character’s status both as husband and bachelor; he’s more attuned to his environment than to any one person. Just what, or who, is this man connected to? Killer enforces the impression that attraction is a more powerful proposition than morality or lifestyle. The ideological implications of the film are inordinate; Winterbottom won’t punish his character or even disguise his behavior like some parodied brand of meticulous villainy, which defined Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Lou’s spurned redemption leaves a bitter taste, but should we, as an audience, even be expecting redemption? By and large, the characters associated with Lou — from his lover to his mistress to his colleagues — allow him to indulge in sex and violence by offering scant challenge to his authority. One wonders whether this lenience somehow obliges us to try to identify with the man, as if his angular, imposing surface reveals a humanity otherwise invisible to the audience. And The Killer Inside Me is deceptive to a degree, because Lou’s first-person voiceover, and its moral ambiguity, becomes almost anecdotal. Affleck delivers Lou’s plotting so matter-of-factly, rattling off the line “I knew I had to kill him” as if he were discussing the weather or performing the most meager of misdemeanors.
The filtering tone of the first act encourages us to gauge Lou’s behavior and attempt to understand it, before his gruesome violence dismisses the idea that his crimes are circumstantially necessary. For a while the film lets him play the part of a villain in a bad romance, alienating us with Lou’s violence but encouraging us to hold onto his day-to-day commentary as proof of his there-but-buried humanism — which would prevent him from being totally inaccessible and hint that he might be redeemable. But the suggestion that Lou can step back from his own actions is contravened by his late act of betrayal towards a character close to him. Intended to stir us, the antagonism of this technique subverts the film’s impact as an assessment of psychosis, and Winterbottom’s move to make his provocation more brazen and cynical results in a loss of narrative drive a good half-hour before the credits roll.
Many of the film’s most rewarding features manifest themselves in retrospect. We should be more suspicious of Lou’s strange avoidance of discussing drive and emotion — of his lack of real motive — but Winterbottom does such a good job of distracting us from what we should clearly see. Mainstream cinema reads too much like a moral crusade when it suggests that people don’t appreciate investing in a character built up like an anti-hero but concluding in a blaze of unfathomable disgrace. If the film ends in a messy inferno, it isn’t without a hint of irony. The Killer Inside Me challenges as much as it manipulates, and on balance it redeems itself more than the killer it depicts.