There are things about The Killer Inside Me that I have come to appreciate a lot after having spent some time thinking about the movie and reading about it online. I believe that there is more to the story than what a lot of viewers see. And what do they see? A shameless display of violence with no end to the means.
Casey Affleck plays sheriff Lou Ford, of Central City, Texas. He’s a sadistic man who kills for sport, but on the surface he seems charming and affable. The majority of the praise I have for the movie can go directly to Affleck for his portrayal of the character. The script can only go so far, of course. A screenwriter can write a character who says one thing but does another. They can write expository voice-over for the character to deliver in order to explain why he feels the intense desire to injure and kill people (some vague childhood abuse). But it’s up to the actor to convey that sense of menace while maintaining a friendly composure. It’s too easy to imagine a different actor taking on the role and playing Ford as leering, uncomfortable. He could glare out at the world around him, smug at pulling one over on the townspeople who do not realize what games he is up to in his spare time. But Affleck is perfect in the role: he rarely lets the two halves of his personality collide with one another – the moments when he lets the one sink into the other are brief.
One of my favorite moments is quite fleeting. Ford has visited a friend who has been incarcerated as a suspect in the rash of killings that have taken place in the town recently. After a conversation with the accused, Ford knows that his secret is safe; as he walks out of the jail, a smile crosses his face briefly. He’s sure to tuck it away and put on his expression of solemnity in its stead.
That said, there are definitely two sides to the character. There is the monster, the killer inside, who finds it easy to spit in the face of the woman he has agreed to marry and kick her in the ribs. But there is also that sliver of humanity: the man inside the killer, so to speak. Ford’s problem is a genuine sickness. Perhaps it’s not as clearly addressed as it could have been, but then part of that may be that the facade is just as much in place for the character even while he is providing narration for the audience. It’s easier for him to think of himself as a killer, to carefully craft a lack of remorse for the lives he has taken, because it’s impossible for him to quit. Ford has a compulsion that cannot be quelled, but the cracks in his mask show every so often.
Watch as he has flashbacks to a woman that fell by his hand, of times when they were together and happy. When given the opportunity, Ford is all too eager to tell his story to any ear that will listen, almost as a confession – although always tinged with that sense of smug cheer. Is it genuine? I believe that the answer is no; as the film reaches its conclusion, the threads which have been unraveling slowly throughout the film begin to unwind ever more quickly. It’s as this time that Ford lets his guard down slightly, enough that he can admit to be out-maneuvered – enough that he can admit, however hesitantly, some sense of regret for his actions.
I’m not trying to say that Lou Ford is a tragic hero, no. He’s a stone-cold villain through and through. However, he’s not a villain in the same way as the Jigsaw Killers and the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world are. His plans are meticulous, but not driven by some twisted sense of moral certitude or some bizarre sexual perversion. No, Ford’s violence comes from… from where? Not even he seems to know what drives this compulsion. It’s become so commonplace to him that it’s easier to think of himself as primarily a killer. Ford can barely enjoy his morning cereal without plotting in his mind the murder of a stranger he only recently met.
The movie is successful because it treads this line remarkably well, even in the face of some awful skips in logic. As the side of justice and do-goodery catches up to our protagonist, their ability to put together the pieces at times seems unbelievable. The explanation for Ford’s issues is hardly convincing and poorly presented. I can think about this now and consider that perhaps this is partly intentional, that these snippets of ideas lazily hashed together are the best that Ford himself can come up with to help explain his state of mind. And I think that there is a lot of compelling evidence to suggest that the ability of the good guys to put everything place so quickly may suggest that everything is not quite as it seems.
However, even if we are to take the movie literally, as an image of a cruel character who does nothing but cause injury to others without the slightest hint of feeling…
The movie is still a joy because of the marvelous performance of Casey Affleck. The A.V. Club’s review of the film rightly points out that Affleck “has become a specialist at a particular character type: the soft-spoken gentleman whose dark and/or unsteady side works against his boyish good looks.” It’s true, but he’s damn well suited for it. Would anybody else be able to so easily walk that line between likable and loathsome? In fact, he’s surrounded by talent. Elias Koteas is excellent as a union boss with suspicions about Ford, while Tom Bower and Kate Hudson both shine in their roles as well. And wrapping it all together is the atmosphere, the cool and mysterious air that permeates the entire picture.
Perhaps the themes of the movie could have been better explored. Perhaps I’m giving the movie too much credit to believe that the missteps, the half-thoughts and semi-explanations were at some level intentional. Even if you aren’t willing to give the movie the benefit of that much doubt, it’s at least hard to deny that Affleck carries the film through its troubles. The Killer Inside Me is a dark and violent film, but I nevertheless found it a joy to watch.
Like Ford, I can’t quite explain it. I’m putting words together to make it sound like I have a more compelling reason to speak highly of it – and I honestly do believe that there is good reason to feel that way now, after having spent some time thinking about the movie (and reading an illuminating take from critic David R. Smith). But, really, it comes down to the fact that, I dunno, I just dug the movie. I liked it.