‘The Killer Inside Me’

Winterbottom's hard-boiled thriller goes darker than noir

If you like your film noir darker than a Texas outhouse on a new moon in June, and if you don’t mind being shocked — and I mean really shocked — then here’s your film: “The Killer Inside Me,” director Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the cult noir novel from 1952 by that most hard-boiled of authors, Jim Thompson.

You’ve got stunning beauties Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson in the cast, along with the Affleck who can act, Casey, who’s making a career out of playing morally conflicted types with a chip on their shoulder. Along for the ride is a supporting cast full of great character actors such as Elias Koteas and Ned Beatty.

The story involves a timid deputy sheriff named Lou Ford (Affleck) who’s sent by the powers that be in a dusty Oklahoma oil town to run local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Alba) out of town. She gets hot and slaps him, then he sees red and belt-whips her; the two discover a mutual taste for rough sex, and carry on a clandestine affair while Lou’s boss (Tom Bower) and regular girlfriend, Amy (Hudson), are kept in the dark.

Lou and Joyce devise a plot to shake down one of her clients, the slow-witted son of local kingpin Chester Conway (Beatty); any fan of film noir will already know that a plan like this will always go awry, and rest assured, it does. Big time.

If that at all sounds interesting, then just go see it. Don’t read the rest of this review until after you’ve seen it, for if “The Killer Inside Me” is going to work, it’s got to ambush you, to absolutely smack you upside the head with the way it cruelly twists your expectations of the genre. Every single review I’ve read gives away an absolutely crucial point; sure, it comes a mere 10 minutes into the film, but the difference between seeing it coming and not makes all the difference in the world. But be forewarned: A more disturbing film noir is hard to imagine.

Now, if you have seen the film, here’s where we can have a discussion about that scene. Thompson has been brought to the big screen many times — in “The Getaway,” “The Grifters” and “After Dark, My Sweet” — but basically the author was a bitter, misanthropic rummy, and his curdled view of humanity rarely makes it to the theater without a spoonful of Hollywood sugar to render it palatable. Not so this time: Winterbottom, a director who’s as comfortable adapting Thomas Hardy (“Jude”) as he is Naomi Klein (“The Shock Doctrine”), puts the novel up there as straight as tequila without the lemon.

The controversy around the film has centered on the scene where Alba’s character is beaten to death by Affleck’s. It’s a goddamn hard scene to watch, and not just due to the sheer bone-crunching brutality of it. We are placed in this story with Lou as our narrator, and our instinct is to empathize with him; this scene makes us suddenly, flesh-crawlingly uncomfortable with that position. (Imagine “Psycho” as told from Norman Bates’ perspective.) Beyond that, Alba is an actress whose draw is her unbelievable beauty, and many viewers will be dismayed to see her turned into human hamburger.

I’d go to the wall to defend a film such as David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” — another movie that was greeted with knee-jerk cries of misogyny for its portrayal of sexual violence — but I’m not sure I’d do the same for “The Killer Inside Me.” Lynch’s film, however, outre, retained a moral center; I’m not sure that this one has the same. This is far closer to sheer nihilism than anything else.

While Thompson’s novel was subversive in the 1950s when it emerged, with its portrayal of the good, moral, law-and-order pillar of his community who turns out to be a racist psycho-perv, that is far less of a shocker these days. We’ve been taught repeatedly to suspect authority — even by other neo-noirs like “L.A. Confidential” — and “Killer” offers little else, certainly not much in the way of genre pleasures, other than some appropriately moody cinematography by Marcel Zyskind.

My gut feeling is that this film is carefully constructed flame-bait for liberal, art-cinema audiences. Good liberal filmmaking constantly takes the broad-minded view of “understanding” the criminal, the poor man who through dint of poverty, upbringing, mental illness or bad circumstance wound up committing some regrettable crimes. (See everything from “Dead Man Walking” to “Chapter 27.”) “The Killer Inside Me,” however, gives us a man whose bio would fit all the above excuses, and yet whose crimes are depicted in such a cold, vicious way that liberal audiences will be baying for his blood. (Just look at the outcry that greeted the film at 2010’s Sundance Film Festival.) While this may be amusing, it’s still a difficult film to watch.

Finally, do we need yet another histrionic movie suggesting that if you enjoy a little spanking in the bedroom, you’re going to wind up as a psycho-killer or victim? I mean, really — hasn’t anyone seen a Rihanna or Lady Gaga video lately?