A small-town deputy gets caught in the middle of a tricky situation involving a
prostitute, a rich man, and the rich man's son, who falls in love with the
hooker. Before the situation can get resolved to everyone's satisfaction, the
deputy finds himself in a sado-masochistic relationship with the prostitute,
and their violent sex triggers some evil instincts which had been buried deep
inside of him for some fifteen years. He ends up killing the prostitute and the son, and he
eventually has to
murder several others in the process of covering his tracks.
If you have read and liked Jim Thompson's
eponymous 1952 source novel, you will not be disappointed by this film. The
film's dialogue is nearly a verbatim transcription of the novel's, and its
tone captures exactly what Thompson was
going for. The characters are rendered faithfully, and nearly every element of
the plot has been retained. I read the book after watching the film but
before writing this article, and I have concluded that the adaptation is just
That's good, but not as good as it sounds, because Jim Thompson's works are
not exactly blockbuster movies waiting to happen. His stories are always difficult to adapt
into commercially viable projects because the themes are so dark and the
action so perverse and violent. His nihilistic novels have inspired a number
of crime films such as After Dark My Sweet, The Grifters, two versions
of The Getaway, some French films, and a previous (1976) version of The Killer Inside Me,
starring Stacy Keach. Some of those films have been pretty good, but none of
them have been very successful.
This particular Thompson novel is especially difficult to make into a film because
it's written entirely in the first person, and the narrator, the murderous deputy Lou Ford,
is a sociopath whose words are unreliable, self-serving and
delusional. The "dissembling narration" technique creates all sorts of
headaches for a film adaptation. When we read a book we have no trouble
remaining skeptical of somebody's first-person written account of an event,
especially when the raconteur has already admitted to serious mental illness.
In the book it's clear that every single event is presented by Lou in the
first person, so we know that nothing can be assumed to be objective reality.
But our natural instinct when watching a film is to believe our eyes. As a result
of that tendency, I found myself
quite consistently confused by the action. Were the events I witnessed supposed to be
objective reality or visual representations of Lou's lies? When Lou is trapped by the testimony of an eyewitness
who was supposed to have died much earlier, I was lost. Did the
D.A. actually trick Lou into thinking the witness was already dead, or are we simply watching
Lou's guilt finally coming home to roost in the form of
her imaginary resurrection?
Part of the film consists of Lou's death scene. If everything is his narration, are we to
assume that he is alive and well in an institution somewhere, writing his
tale, and that the (grandiose) death is therefore imaginary?
I assume that the last ten minutes of the film must be a fantasy
transpiring inside Lou's head as he sits in a mental institution. That's just my supposition,
but if true it is highly problematic. If any of what we have seen is
drawn from Lou's imagination, can we rely on anything else we have witnessed?
Is everything on screen meant to portray Lou's delusions? That may well be, because all
of the female characters love Lou in direct proportion to how violently he
beats them, and that ratio seems to exist outside of objective reality. But if
the entire story is delusional, then perhaps Lou has committed no crimes at
all. Maybe he is actually a quiet pacifist sitting at a desk in an accounting
office, acting out his taboo urges by means of written fantasies, ala H.P.
Lovecraft or Quentin Tarantino. In that case, this is just his latest yarn.
Or perhaps the camera has shown us some events objectively and some through
Frankly, I just don't know.
The film fails to convey any answers to those questions, but it does offer
some hints. In the death scene, Lou cryptically remarks to one of the men in
the room, "Don't say anything. I haven't given you any lines." (That
is one of the few lines not taken directly from the novel.) I guess we are
supposed to infer that at least this one scene must be taking place entirely in his head.
If you call it another way, I can't refute you.
It must also be noted that watching The Killer Inside Me has been an extremely unpleasant
experience for many mainstream moviegoers.
It's filled with graphic violence against women, and many people have found the
visceral scenes to be unnecessarily explicit. (Think "Irreversible.") Many
people walked out of the Sundance screening, for example, including the female star,
Since the action is both confusing and repellent, this is obviously not a
project that solicits our love, yet the film's distance from the audience doesn't prevent
it from exuding a
mesmerizing aura. I was confused about what was real, to be sure, and I looked away a couple of
times during the beatings, but I never lost
interest and I wanted to see how it would all play out! I was pulled so deep into Lou Ford's world that
I started to
feel the noose tightening around him, as if I myself had committed the
heinous acts, and was starting to run out of alibis. It's to the credit of
director Michael Winterbottom and star Casey Affleck that I actually started to
get deeply involved in the fate of such an evil person, because the actor and
that involvement without ever trying to make me like Lou, and without
sugar-coating his deeds.
This film is not going to make any money, or many friends, but it's still
fascinating, atmospheric, and totally faithful to its source novel.