A certain amount of anticipation mixed with a healthy dose of trepidation inevitably arises when someone learns that their favorite novel has been adapted into a feature film. It’s rare, if not impossible, to capture the full flavor of a work of literature in a two-hour movie. Even well-regarded adaptations (from The Wizard of Oz to Gone With the Wind to No Country for Old Men to the Harry Potter books) are forced to excise certain things, leaving fans to debate the varying merits of each medium.
Winterbottom has given us some fascinatingly good films (The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) and some fascinatingly bad ones (9 Songs). Aside from that pesky British background of his, he seems like an appropriate enough fellow to tackle the psychotic, mid-century, Central Texas roman noir of Jim Thompson. It’s not a small task. Thompson’s a difficult writer to nail. James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters are the only films to get him remotely right. The rest have been near misses (Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon) or total whiffs (Roger Donaldson’s The Getaway).
This newest stab at The Killer Inside Me sticks closely to the bones of Thompson’s 1952 paperback. Affleck plays our man Lou Ford, an unfailingly affable small-town sheriff’s deputy whose dark interior life is awakened by an encounter with an itinerant hooker (Jessica Alba, looking a little too gorgeous for an itinerant hooker). Initially, Lou is assigned to roust this woman of ill repute, but a sudden session of rough sex puts the kibosh on Lou’s sense of civic duty. Soon, he’s sneaking around behind the back of his good girl fiancée (Kate Hudson), experimenting with autoerotic asphyxiation and engaging in a blackmail plot against the son of a local construction magnate.
The most memorable thing about Thompson’s book is that it’s told entirely in the first person. Although Affleck narrates some of the film, it’s difficult to re-create the original’s uncomfortable conspiratorial tone. Lou Ford is supposed to be a complete sociopath who hides his sadistic tendencies underneath the phony mask of a genial small-town rube. He’s an actor, and he gets off on fooling people. For the duration of Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, we’re stuck inside Ford’s head, privy to truths no one else knows, listening to his mad justifications of evil. Over the course of Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, we come to know what Ford is, but we’re less connected to him. As a result, Ford comes across less as one of the most amoral characters ever created and more like a dude with a taste for S&M and a couple of inner demons to conquer.
This increased sense of separation from the main character gives us more time to ponder the plot—in which Ford murders his hooker girlfriend and then finds himself on a slippery slope trying to cover up his tracks. The plot for Thompson’s novel is not its strong point. It’s a bit of a slow builder. Just like the 1976 version, this cinematic thriller feels short on the thrills. Winterbottom misses the tension, but tries to compensates with a couple bouts of brutal violence. He’s gotten a decent amount of flack for it, too, with some calling him an unrepentant misogynist since the brutality is aimed exclusively against women. But the sequences are essential to the plot and do an excellent job of pointing out Lou Ford’s innate sickness. Nasty though they may be, they feel more direct and unflinching (a Thompson trademark) than exploitative.
Visually, the period re-creation of early-’50s rural Texas is impressive. (The film was lensed in parts of Oklahoma and a bit of New Mexico.) The sets, the music, the costumes all put viewers right in the thick of the environment. The cast (including Simon Baker, Bill Pullman, Ned Beatty and Elias Koteas) all look the part. And like Keach before him, Affleck gives it his icy all. But it’s difficult with a main character whose central characteristic is his psychotic lack of emotion. As a seedy, occasionally shocking journey into film noir territory, The Killer Inside Me works. But movies don’t have the ability get inside characters’ heads the way books can. And so, as the one-way trip to hell Thompson intended, The Killer Inside Me falls a mile or two short of its intended destination.
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