I went through a big phase of reading Jim Thompson about a year ago, so I was very eagerly anticipating this version of this, one of his most powerful novels. This version was said to hew much more closely to the novel--a work that flirts with being "unfilmable"--and arrived amid controversy over its scenes of brutal, sadistic violence against women. Although I don't really know who is caught up in this "controversy," since this film has barely registered on any kind of cultural radar, is only playing at one theater in Manhattan, and seems destined to disappear quietly without leaving any sort of impact. It seems that much more lasting damage to women's causes is being done by Sex and the City 2. But before we go much further let me just reiterate that we at CdM don't give a shit about political correctness.
We open with a colorful credits sequence in the style of 60s country album covers. It reminded me of the similar [but better] credits for another [excellent] Thomspon adaptation, The Grifters. We meet Casey Affleck as lawman Lou Ford, with his slight build and high-pitched, squeaky voice. I spent the entire movie trying to accept this conception of the character, and several other things about the movie, as quite different than I had envisioned them when reading the novel. Ford is charged to go out to the house of Joyce Lakeland, prostitute who has set up shop on the outskirts of town, and run her out of town. He goes, and she smacks him around, enraging him to the point that he beats her until she suddenly gives in and they have sex. Soon they are seeing each other regularly, and she seems to adore him. This, to me, wholly misinterprets the grim social scene of the novel, in which Joyce, accustomed to scrambling for mere survival, recognizes Ford as the dominant ape--she's a prostitute and he's a powerful town cop--and her "affection" for him is mere acceptance that she had BETTER be his friend.
Now, more complications. The businessman patriarch of the town is Chester Conway, played by Ned Beatty, who has the requisite roustabout son in Elmer. Ford learns that Conway senior engineered the death of Ford's foster brother in retaliation for sexually abusing a five-year-old girl. In a quick flashback, we learn that it was actually Lou who did the abusing. So although he let his brother take the rap for it, he feels bad that his brother had to die for it--or perhaps just that someone else decided the matter--and the germ of a revenge plot grows in him. This plot is what sets the meandering events of the rest of the film in motion.
Now there’s an important element to Ford’s character in the novel that is only glanced at here. Ford speaks to most people in genial good ol’ boy clichés like “you never know what you got ‘til it’s gone” or whatever. This purposely keeps people at a distance, is aggressive in a very passive way [you might even call it "passive-aggressive"], and is designed to make people think Lou is just stupid and harmless. One of the bits of the book that unlocked the character for me is that Lou was very smart and was looking forward to getting out of his tiny town and going to college. Then his father got sick, requiring Lou to stay home to care for him and drying up all the money he could have used for college, and Lou realized that he would be stuck in that town forever. So he pulled his intelligence into himself, presented only this hateful/friendly façade to others, and began to speak in these idiotic clichés. And, of course, have contempt for all humanity. This may be too complex to cram into this movie, but the whole cliché angle, a huge part of Lou’s character, is only half attempted here, and if you hadn’t read the book I don’t think you’d pick up on it at all.
So Joyce is also seeing Elmer, Conway’s son, and he plans to bring her a ton of money and elope. She is planning on taking the money and eloping with Lou. He has different plans, however. He takes $500 from Elmer, pretends to get a flat, walks to Joyce’s house, they have sex—and then he beats her to death with his bare hands. Director Winterbottom handles this as well as he can, I think, showing Joyce getting hit a few times to depict what is happening, but mostly just showing Lou as he beats her, and then the aftermath. He makes a big mistake, changing a small element of the book, in that Joyce just lies there and takes it, even whispering “I love you,” after she is halfway to death. In the novel you'd better believe she fights back, once she realizes what is happening. This change is what I think makes this scene as filmed offensive, but we’ll get back to this near the end. Then Elmer arrives, and Ford shoots him with Joyce’s gun, then places the weapon in Joyce’s hand. It looks like Elmer beat Joyce and she shot him in self-defense before dying [don’t you just love crime before all this boring DNA analysis and everything?], and part of the point of this is to humiliate the senior Conway—his son will forever be remembered as someone who beat up whores. But the real point—and this is something I didn’t think really came through in the movie—is that Lou killed these people just because he felt like it. And in the novel, at least, he REALLY gets off on it.
Things get even more complicated from here, as Lou has to do things and eventually kill others to maintain his innocence and contain the situation as it spirals out of control. There are a few minor mistakes in terms of dealing with what the novel was: Lou smiling broadly after a murder, when he should be stony-faced, Lou getting visibly nervous when questioned, when he should be cool as a cucumber, Lou’s psychotically genial attitude coming and going without much consistency. Winterbottom also retreats behind pop music and lets it deliver atmosphere for him at key moments. I saw this with two people, one of whom had just finished the novel, and one who hadn’t read it, and both of them liked it more than I did. The one who had just finished the novel said this film was exactly as he pictured it, and Affleck as Lou exactly how he pictured him. Well, not me. In fact, I had a very hard time watching this for what it was, because of small but important differences in the events and characterizations.
For one, Affleck is an inspired choice to play Ford, and he would have been better if the script had shaped better. There was a version of this made in 1976 with Stacey Keach, who turned out, for me at least, to embody Lou Ford precisely. He was physically large and could perfectly pull off the whole psycho-hiding-behind-a-big-‘ol-smile thing. Even at his most genial and polite, he was extremely threatening, and that’s what Lou Ford is to me. Unfortunately, to say that earlier version screwed up the storytelling would be an understatement. Clearly they were purposely going to someone slighter in stature and with this high squeaky voice, contrasting that with his insane psychology, and although it’s not how I pictured Ford, it could have worked if the script and direction had been more focused.
Because although I disagree that this novel is “unfilmable,” anyone would agree that it presents an enormous challenge. The whole novel is first-person, from an extremely unreliable narrator whose manner of speaking is itself a large portion of the telling. Secondly, the plot, such as it is, is extremely sprawling, turns on the accumulation of small incidents, and in many cases involves long-gone history—these characters, for the most part, have known each other all their lives. The book is fairly meandering, and when you need to make all that make sense in a movie, and introduce the sheer number of characters you’d need to do it, you’d need a three or four hour movie. And all of this is not to mention that, due to Thompson’s style, there are key moments of the novel you have to read six or seven times, and even then might only have the vaguest idea of what happened.
A real massive misstep is the characterization of Joyce—which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the casting of Jessica Alba. In the novel, Joyce has been dragged down the bumpy road of life—twice—and knows what she has to do to take care of herself, which, in the time and environment in which she lives, is find the biggest and strongest man and be his number-one woman. When Lou beats her, she sees that 1) he’s a cop, and 2) he’s a strong, sadistic bastard, and she realizes right quick that she’d better be his best friend. But when he starts beating her she also recognizes what’s happening, and fights back. Here, she just sits there and takes it, even whispering “I love you” when half-dead. Now look—if your significant other or anyone you loved very much came in the room right now and started SEVERELY beating you, wouldn’t you at least defend yourself? There is more content later in the film to indicate that Lou could pretty much do anything to her—and, well, he DID—and she’d still love him. Ironically, THIS is what makes the movie more offensive than it would have been otherwise! Lou’s a sadistic, misogynist psychopath, so we expect this from him. But to suggest that Joyce would fall in love with someone BECAUSE he beats her, then continue to love and be devoted to him AS he is beating her to death, that is really beyond the pale—and it is in no way suggested by the novel.
Okay so, aside from all this, how is it as a movie? It’s not awful, but it just fails to gain momentum, and ultimately it’s unclear what the point is. The plot, which is quite meandering, seems particularly unmoored, and there are some characters on hand one can’t really see the point of, some late shifts of scene that don’t go anywhere [but one suspects they couldn’t bear to just leave out], and the addition of some characters late in the game that just push one out of the movie. The novel is also very meandering, but there Lou Ford is this monumental and magnetic figure that transfixes your attention and draws you through everything, just to hear more of his voice and figure out more of what makes him tick, and what he’s up to. Here he’s weak and a little opaque, and the plot has to do much more lifting than it was designed to. God, what Brian De Palma could have done with this….
If you’re a big fan of the novel, and want to see how it turned out. If not, I don’t think it really offers that much.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME  gets the characters and look and setting exactly right, which makes it more of a shame that it screws up the story so badly.