Notorious from the moment it first unspooled at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me” certainly has a fair share of brutal indulgences. However, as much as the controversy may scare off the faint of heart, the viciousness comes and goes — which could also let down torture porn fans willing or even eager to endure it. “Killer” is a surprisingly patient, observational portrait of insanity.
Winterbottom successfully nudges the movie’s violence (almost entirely enacted against helpless women) away from sensationalism with a pedestrian outlook that has the chilling effect of normalization. The matter-of-fact approach to staging murder provides both the chief strength of “Killer” — which adopts, and nearly sympathizes with, the perspective of a psychopath — and the reason it never reaches the radically confrontational quality promised by its morbid reputation.
The story itself has plenty of twisted highlights: Among the grisly acts featured in this stylish adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel, the most unsettling finds secretly demented Texan deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) repeatedly hammering his fist into the face of a local prostitute named Joyce (Jessica Alba). Calmly bashing her skull into sawdust, backing down only once she nears death, Lou energetically yells out that he loves her. Cinematic bittersweetness rarely offered such a subversive kick.
Disgust factor aside, the Alba punching bit gives “Killer” its greatest set piece, a viscerally memorable flash of uncensored mania that lays out Lou’s cold-blooded logic with dramatic extremism. Few scenes capture Lou’s madness in the same lively fashion, turning “Killer” into a slick exercise in the creation of a foreboding atmosphere.
Lou’s craziness gradually seeps into the story by initially making the status of his sanity ambiguous. Set in the early 1950’s, “Killer” establishes the quaint setting of Central City, Texas with the help of a sweepingly desolate environment shot by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (“Mister Lonely”). Within minutes, the movie reveals its black comic intentions, although at first they’re surface deep: Answering a routine call about prostitution, Lou confronts Alba’s character on the edge of town and quickly falls into a sadomasochistic liaison with her. Dodging the suspicions of his cheery wife (Kate Hudson), Lou eventually cooks up a scheme to blackmail the town’s avaricious businessman (Ned Beatty) and run away with Joyce — a diabolical ruse that makes the one at the center of “Double Indemnity” look tame.
Although it initially seems that Lou intends to leave town with his lover, the aforementioned punching scene pushes aside that agenda in favor of another, bleaker intention that Lou never totally understands himself. The bodies start piling up as the deputy continually eludes the suspicions of his colleagues, while Lou’s voiceover narration guides us through the enigmatic rationale he applies to his every move.
The limited point of view means that Winterbottom avoids the need to clarify how much of “Killer” actually takes place, and at what point it veers into pure fantasy. The slipperiness of reality makes “Killer” into a compelling puzzle of an experience, but that very imprecision makes it hard to nail down exactly what purpose the movie seeks. For all its intrigue, “Killer” amounts to a fairly mannered adaptation, lacking the answers to the smattering of questions regarding human behavior in the context of foul play.
Still, Affleck’s performance ranks among the best of the year, if simply because he manages to make Lou’s calm demeanor feel creepily genuine. Unlike the 1976 adaptation of the same novel, “Killer” has the potential to hold a solid place in the canon of serial killer movies. Lou does not serve as a figure of pity, but his immorality offers a tantalizing mystery. The killer is not inside all of us, but curiosity about him surely is.