Though lean and handsome like his older brother Ben, Casey Affleck is in every way the opposite of his more famous sibling: Laconic and mysterious where Ben is open and ingratiating, he tends to speak in a low drawl that suggests either a modest, retiring personality or someone who tucks dark secrets behind an impassive demeanor. With only the slightest shift in inflection, Affleck can play the quietly compassionate, street-smart private eye in Gone Baby Gone or the opportunistic simpleton who guns down a legend in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Based on Jim Thompson's seminal first-person crime novel, The Killer Inside Me casts Affleck as a small-town deputy in 1950s West Texas, a man who cuts a clean figure but harbors a penchant for boundless savagery outside the public eye. It's the ideal role for Affleck, who conveys the chilling ease with which a sociopath can slip in and out of character, with only a lingering Cheshire cat grin as evidence that he's done something wrong and gotten away with it.
While there's no better choice than Affleck to play the taciturn killer of the title, it's sadly one of the few choices the movie gets right. Director Michael Winterbottom, a prolific jack-of-all-trades in the Steven Soderbergh mold, has dabbled in genres as varied as the Western (The Claim), the sci-fi thriller (Code 46), the docudrama (The Road To Guantanamo, A Mighty Heart) and the musical biopic (24 Hour Party People). But he doesn't have the style or feel for atmosphere so crucial to film noir, where vagaries of tone and lighting effects can suggest more than reams of hard-boiled dialogue and voiceover narration.
As scripted by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore), The Killer Inside Me feels blunt and overexplained -- though to be fair to Curran and Winterbottom, some of the bluntness has a purpose, and the curlicues in Thompson's story do require some sorting out.
Tasked with running a local prostitute named Joyce out of town, Affleck's Lou Ford changes his mind when she appears in the luscious form of Jessica Alba; in fact, he proves entirely receptive to the sadomasochistic impulses she stirs within him. The two engage in afternoon sessions of rough trade, but it isn't long before his shirked responsibilities catch up to him: It seems the son of local bigwig Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) has fallen in love with Joyce, and Chester wants Lou to help slip her some hush money and send her on her way.
What comes next is a sequence that brought The Killer Inside Me instant notoriety -- to put it kindly -- when it premiered at Sundance in January, a murder-suicide that Lou orchestrates with a shocking brutality surpassing Jake La Motta's worst spells in Raging Bull. Winterbottom doesn't shrink from depicting violence against women, which persists when Lou comes home to his "nice" girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) -- but the gruesome explicitness, which goes far beyond what's portrayed in Thompson's novel, only serves to make the storytelling feel more modern, not necessarily more resonant.
A streamlined script might have helped. Curran and Winterbottom lose themselves in the soupy business of union shenanigans, an internal investigation and Lou's intervention in a troubled boy's life, but the added complications -- and the talk, talk, talk they require -- take away from the disquieting core of Thompson's story.
Compound that with Winterbottom's second-hand atmospherics and a habit of underlining the action with expository flashbacks and ironic samples of period music, and The Killer Inside Me leaves no mystery as to what dark forces drive its vicious antihero. And with that, it loses its menace.