Casey 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. In Michael Winterbottom and John Curran’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp classic The Killer Inside Me, Affleck plays a small-town Texas lawman who believes in politeness and neighborliness, and loves how adherence to those values helps people keep their secrets. And as it happens, Affleck has some wicked secrets himself. He likes to play the rube just to get under people’s skin, beating women arouses him, and if he sees an opportunity to kill a person, he takes it.
Affleck is the perfect actor for this role, though he’s a little too mush-mouthed to do the voiceover narration required of a noir. As he gets drawn into a sadomasochistic relationship with itinerant prostitute Jessica Alba, Affleck attracts the audience with his blitheness, then repels with his viciousness. But Winterbottom isn’t really the right person to direct a story this gamy. He’s good, but he lacks a personal style, which means that The Killer Inside Me often reverts to the look and feel of all the films influenced by Thompson: Blood Simple, Chinatown, Twin Peaks, and the like. In the absence of a strong personal vision, the movie’s graphic violence becomes ugly almost to the point of being gratuitous, and the endless scenes of men in hats muttering threats become increasingly dry.
Still, the substance of Thompson’s work survives—in particular the sticky psychological and genealogical origins of Affleck’s psychosis, and his fear of being looked upon as an outsider in his hometown. Winterbottom captures the atmosphere of a dusty community where everyone knows everybody’s history, and where money and power can only sway public opinion to a point. If The Killer Inside Me had focused more on fleshing out that community, then Affleck’s performance might’ve been just one strong element in a more vivid picture. Instead, the movie takes a bumpy, circular road through Thompson’s plot, without really taking in the scenery.