FILM An entirely fake controversy brewed at the Sundance Film Festival three years ago in anticipation of the "Dakota Fanning rape movie," otherwise known as Hounddog. Fanning was then a cloyingly cute, frequently tearful actor known for family-friendly films ergo, her appearance as a victim of child abuse in a 1950s rural drama got fanned by hysterical pundits and popular media into terrible child actor abuse. Before anyone actually saw the film, of course.
Once they had, however, the scandal quickly slunk into a corner and died. Hounddog was barely released many months later and not because it was an exploitative shocker. Rather, it turned out to be a ludicrous gumbo of Southern gothic clichés and clumsy good intentions that violated no standards beyond those of intelligence and art.
This January another Sundance controversy broke. It was, coincidentally, over another Deep South period piece, and also wrong-headed. The movie was eclectic English director Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, the latest screen version of a beloved and spectacularly nasty noir tale by literary pulp hero Jim Thompson. The protest, aired in audience walkouts and complaints, was that the onscreen violence against women was viciously excessive.
In this case, the accusation is as true as the ones against Hounddog were false. But that’s just one reason that Killer is good art while Hounddog is fraudulently bad. In Winterbottom’s film, violence is horribly immediate, sadistic yet matter-of-fact, almost unendurable everything movie violence almost never is. There’s nothing remotely comfortable about the highly personal, unnecessary cruelty our antihero wreaks. And there’s real deliberateness about the way that brutality escalates when he’s putting down female, as opposed to male, obstacles. S’called misogyny, folks.
The Killer Inside Me is about Sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a good ol’ boy (if not yet so old) in his dusty, back-slappy west Texas hometown of the late 1950s. Lou plays the part so well no one in this sleepily, routinely corrupt berg would ever suspect him of being … complicated. Indeed, he is a world-class sociopath who depends on their lazy small-town gullibility and rote suspicion toward outsiders to literally) get away with murder.
Affleck is oddly cast in that he lacks the innate bully heft or lunacy that made Stacey Keach an ideal embodiment of Thompson’s ultimate unreliable-narrator concept in Burt Kennedy’s 1976 screen version. This Affleck can’t possibly be mistaken for John Wayne 4.0. But could the Duke have played the game-changing weenie in 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford?
Winterbottom’s Killer Inside Me is all about antiheroic nightmares hidden beneath blinding Texan skies. Outwardly placid, inwardly paranoid, Lou is shagging local Amy (Kate Hudson) secretly, because she’s a "nice girl" but gets distracted by Joyce (Jessica Alba), a probable prostitute he’s asked to bum rush outta town. They discover an SM bond he’s reluctant to sever. Unless, that is, imminent exposures of a criminal, monetary, or moral kind direct otherwise. Which they rapidly do.
Leading ladies Alba and Hudson are widely perceived as spoiled hotties of little talent hence perfect battering-rams for pulp-machismo movie violence. What’s cool about Winterbottom’s Killer is that it refuses to let you enjoy the abuse they endure, which is viscerally unpleasant as a fist to the gut. Escapist air sucks from the room every time these long-term starlets (both actually pretty good here) get battered. It’s not slasher-flick funny, entertaining, or otherwise easily dismissed. It’s abrupt, grueling, and horrific.
At once folksy-nostalgic and vicious, The Killer Inside Me is unabashedly about men who hate women. It successfully translates Thompson’s gambit of insinuating us into the seemingly pleasant, reasonable viewpoint of a protagonist we are then surprised to discover is psychotic and without a conscience. Offended Sundance attendees should’ve gotten a clue: deliberately misleading in its pulp-nostalgia trappings, this is one movie that upsets not gratuitously, but exactly as it should.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME opens Fri/25 at the Sundance Kabuki.