Killer's tormented self gets simplified for screen

Jul 7, 2010 at 4:00 am
Killer's tormented self gets simplified for screen

Implicit in its title, the premise of The Killer Inside Me — directed by Michael Winterbottom from Jim Thompson's 1952 crime novel — could be summed up in a classified ad: Texas cop with pleasant boyish demeanor seeks compliant dames for sadistic sex games culminating in murder. What complicates this tale is its telling. Here, as with Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, the glibly versatile Winterbottom has taken the challenge of an impossible adaptation.

It's a truism that the best movies are made from the worst material, and vice versa. And yet, modernist titans Kafka, Proust, and Chekhov have all been credibly filmed while John Huston made a career of adapting first-rate fiction. The real point is that when a director botches the sub-literary, no one much cares. Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy attempted to be as self-reflexive in its way as Laurence Sterne's sui generis masterpiece of 18th-century postmodernism. The Killer Inside Me, however, is another sort of masterpiece — a paperback original supposedly knocked out in two weeks by the man critic Geoffrey O'Brien memorably termed America's "dime-store Dostoyevsky."

Thompson's fearsome tale is recounted in the first-person by a blatantly unreliable narrator. Foisting himself on the world as a gentlemanly, platitude-spouting Jimmy Stewart type, Lou Ford is less a character than an act, or a joke on the reader. The ease with which the killer-cop outwits the other characters is matched only by the apparent rationality with which this self-conscious psychopath explicates his increasingly brutal crimes or self-diagnoses what he melodramatically terms the sickness. There's a sense that Ford not only scripts the story but directs the action. Thompson's novel is a Möbius strip in which nothing its calculating protagonist says can be taken at face value. Ford's cheerful personality is a façade that encompasses an unfathomable void.

The Killer Inside Me isn't even so much a novel, let alone a thriller, as a vacuum that inexorably sucks the reader into a moral black hole. The book has to play inside one's head to work. Perhaps this malign fiction could have been filmed in the manner of Isidore Isou's notorious Venom and Eternity — a black screen and an unending rant. Or, alternately, it might have been played for amoral Blood Simple slapstick. There's a bit of the latter strategy in the movie's apocalyptic finale but, basically, Winterbottom's version is Classic Comics. The characters are stiffly drawn, the action is fastidiously staged, the production design is self-consciously retro (reinforced by a soundtrack surplus of western swing). The poster is stronger than any image in the movie.

No shortage of cheap thrills, though: Lou (Casey Affleck) smiles affably as he stubs out his cigarette in a derelict's outstretched palm or sets about beating his adoring punching-bags — a hot little hooker (Jessica Alba) and a hard-faced school teacher (Kate Hudson) — until they're black and blue or (much, much) worse. Winterbottom necessarily ups the book's violence quotient merely by dramatizing it. Like the book, his movie is deeply unpleasant — but in another way. The reader is implicated by Lou's intelligence; the viewer is repulsed by Lou's actions. (Winterbottom had a similar problem in his previous attempt to depict absolute evil, Butterfly Kiss, where punk psycho-killer Amanda Plummer was beyond empathy.)

Affleck's voiceover notwithstanding, the insinuating quality of Lou's divided consciousness is a lot trickier to deliver than his capacity to beat some chick to a pulp. His intelligence can be signified: We know he's the smartest dude in town because he listens to Caruso, solves chess problems, keeps a volume of Freud handy on the shelf, and fences so well with the movie's resident superego, local union organizer Elias Koteas. But, without his voice conjuring reality by whispering in our ears, this la-di-da routine is just another reason to dislike him.

Actually, Koteas's relentless overacting accentuates Winterbottom's greatest asset: Affleck. Here, as in The Assassination of Jesse James, he projects himself as a natural-born creep. This withholding actor's impish smile and mild, pale-eyed stare — not to mention the Clintonesque hoarseness with which he spins his convoluted lies — are sufficiently convincing to keep The Killer Inside Me from being just a steamy, stylish, punishing bloodbath.