If Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Robert Ford in Andrew Dominic’s The Assassination of Jesse James, had kids, and they had kids, then the Lou Ford of Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me would be able to trace his psychotic lineage a few generations back. Though his performance in The Killer Inside Me is in many ways similar to his 2008 Oscar-nominated turn as Jesse James’ assassin, Affleck falters as this new Ford, a psychopath and (arguably) sexual deviant whose homicidal complex is as deadly as it is inexplicable.

The film, adapted from Jim Thompson’s lurid pulp classic, takes some liberties with the book, in particular the already-notorious sequence of Ford tenderizing Jessica Alba’s face. This scene and another equally gut-wrenching encounter with Kate Hudson are unfortunately the most memorable the film has to offer, violence permanently imprinting the images on the viewer’s subconscious. Here, Winterbottom is unrelenting, refusing to turn away from the viciousness of the beating and the immediate wounds that follow. The rest of the film, a sun-scorched noir that focuses around Affleck’s two-faced small town sheriff, is persuasive in an odd way – watchable but not propelled forward – nicely staged and acted, but not particularly on the verge of coalescing into a compelling work.

Set in a Texas town in the 1950s, Lou Ford is the young, boyish sheriff, seemingly a blank slate of a man. Affleck once again makes use of his youthful features and a voice that borders on falsetto in moments of duress. The problem with our protagonist (aside from a murderous urge he cannot seem to quell or explain, but one that may be rooted in a history of childhood sexual abuse) is that he is not very well developed. Lou plays piano and keeps a Bible on a shelf next to the works of Freud. Nevermind that the Bible is filled with bondage shots taken of his mother by his father. There’s a goldmine that Winterbottom never turns to, seemingly content with showing us a single scene of Lou perusing and then burning the snapshots. Lou remains impenetrable and the film suffers for it as it takes on the more typical pronouncements of noir.

Lou is dispatched by Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), local figurehead, to run Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town. Joyce has taken up with Conway’s son Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson) and Conway wants her paid off and gone. Instead, as is customary in this genre, Lou falls for Joyce, who shares his love of rough love-play. It turns out Lou has a score to settle with Conway and intends to make Elmer and Joyce complicit in his scheme, whether they want to or not. As he leaves bodies on his trail, Lou must evade both the town’s authorities, including head sheriff Bob Maples (Tom Bower), who is genuinely infatuated with bringing up the young man as his successor and Simon Baker’s attorney, out to prove that Ford is the killer and bring him to justice.

Winterbottom’s has never been an easily identifiable director, choosing more to accept a workman-like ethic for the majority of his career and here, the film could benefit from a more personal touch. The acting is difficult to judge, given that the majority of the dialogue is the simmering accusations native to pulp and noir and the cast delivers those admirably. The problem is no character here are well developed, especially Ford, who needs any kind of center for us to hold on to but remains specter, a violent cipher, unhinged and definitely disturbed. The Killer Inside Me remains an emotionally distant film throughout and thus does not leave much of an impression beyond the startling violence inherent in the two aforementioned scenes. Still, the film is capably made and definitely watchable.

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