Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 04, 2010 5:30 pm 
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Fragmented luridness

Lou Ford is a small town deputy sheriff in West Texas in the Fifties, a bland young man on the outside but with a sickness he's been harboring inside for years that's just waiting to burst into horrible bloom and invade his whole being. When the sheriff sends him to pay a prostitute and make her leave town, she smacks him, and he smacks her back harder, and they make love on her bed, and a relationship begins that leads to a succession of increasingly violent acts, terminating in five deaths and along the way compelling Lou Ford to attempt a coverup that is doomed to go up in flames and take him along with it.

The Killer Inside Me, this lurid serial killer tragedy, is a great role for Casey Affleck, who plays Lou Ford, one he's spent years grooming for. Lou is a cold killer with a polite mama's boy manner, a Boy Scout type who'd use his Swiss Army knife not for whittling, but for slashing women's flesh. He puts on gloves so his beating leaves fewer marks. His thing is smashing up women with his fists, then spanking them as a lead-up to sex -- or, finally, to murder.

Affleck gives a pitch-perfect show; his facade never breaks. You keep expecting him to look worried or crack a smile, but he never does. He breaks a sweat, but when he grins, it fits the warped persona, and when the reedy voice cracks slightly, its like rubato on a violin. The actor's persona is opaque but convincing, a work of eerily quaint folk art.

Unfortunately, the movie itself is a botch. This is pulp fiction, but as one of the best known works of one of the great masters of the form, Jim Thompson, it must be considered a literary adaptation, one that went wrong. The reason is not as some say because the sex and violence are too raw, but because the story has been made a hash of. The shock isn't the beatings and the sensuality but how little electricity they generate, and that's what happens to the narrative as a whole. Instead of being propulsive and suspenseful, it's fragmented and unclear. A fundamental problem is that the novel is in the first person: it's the inner monologue of a homicidal psychopath. This is the same as with Patricia Highsmith, whose novels told from the evildoer's POV are so tempting but so hard to dramatize on film.

There is voiceover from Affleck, but there can't be enough to get truly into Lou Ford's warped head. A few flashbacks to his early life aren't enough, and (like so much of the editing) they aren't well placed in the order of unfolding scenes to prepare the audience and make Lou's apparently simple but actually many-layered personality understandable.

And apart from the protagonist's complex back story this is already a very tangled tale. Lou's prostitute girlfriend Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) has something to do with Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson), the son of town big shot Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), and this leads to a hastily-sketched-in extortion plot by Joyce and Lou. Lou's relationship with his fiancee, Amy (Kate Hudson), becomes as sado-mashochistic as with Joyce. The cafe owner's son Johnnie Pappas (Liam Aiken) suddenly gets put in jail for Joyce's murder; it's not so clear why. A man called Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas), with some kind of longtime rivalry with Chester Conway, begins tailing Lou and sees through his coverup which slowly fades, while Lou's violence and insanity escalate. Another factor is Lou's boss, Sheriff Tom Maples (Tom Bower), who's an aging drunk. An investigator called Howard Hendricks is called in -- from a long way off, one can't help feeling, since the actor who plays him, Simon Baker, is from Australia.

And there's a drifter (Brent Briscoe) who turns into a blackmailer, as well as another Deputy (Matthew Maher) and a man called Billy Boy Walker (none other than Bill Pullman) who comes to free Lou after he's been held in jail for a couple weeks and then in the "insane asylum," as Affleck, with characteristic quaintness, reads the phrase. Back in the past, Lou already had a history of sexual abusiveness toward a girl when he was a boy, and this may have something to do with the death of his slightly older foster brother, Mike, who died in an industrial accident that may have been murder.

Believe it or not, all this makes sense in Jim Thompson's novel -- but it's way too much to fool around with. Nonetheless Winterbottom and the author of the screenplay John Curran (whose writing credits don't look that impressive) have fooled around with it. The result is confusion.

The screenplay includes some of the novel's key lines, such as these words of Lou Ford to the boy, Johnnie Pappas, when he's in jail for Lou's crime: "I guess I kind of got a foot on both fences, Johnnie. I planted 'em there early and now they've taken root, and I can't move either way and I can't jump. All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle." We can sense that this conceals an essential truth about the story's warped protagonist. But we haven't been told enough to know what he means.

Little by little the facts all unfold, but without an order and a context that would give them full meaning. The result is a curious detachment not just by Lou Ford, as is to be expected, for such is the way of psychopathic killers, but for us, because we are not drawn into the action. Nor does the Fifties period atmosphere resonate for us, despite some obvious efforts at noir night lighting and much use of period cars and costumes and architecture. Even in the crowd scenes it all looks right, but despite or perhaps because of Casey Affleck's perfect-pitch line readings, which are some kind of amazing blend of cold technique and Method acting, the lurid mood never fully takes hold. We remain on the outside looking in, noting one development after another. The arch, campy feel set up by the opening credits and the rockabilly music don't help. A clumsy lack of affect dooms the proceedings from the first few minutes, rendering the intense plot inoperable, ineffective, when it ought to have been devastating.

Stanley Kubrick, who worked successfully with Jim Thompson on this 1956 The Killing, famously called The Killer Inside Me "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." And clearly worthy material for a film. But it has not yet been done. Despite Casey Affleck's brilliant star performance, Winterbottom's version is only a hollow shell.

The Killer Inside Me, 109 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2010. Half a dozen festival showings, theatrical openings UK 8 June 2010; US 18 June (NYC), 25 June (limited).

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