Psy­cho killer doesn’t quite cut it in adap­ta­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES & LIFE - By John De­Fore

Pulp-novel ge­nius Jim Thomp­son, whose 1963 book “The Grifters” in­spired one of the best neo-noir films of the ’90s, cer­tainly crafted his share of big-screen-friendly an­ti­heroes. Lou Ford, the Andy Grif­fith-meets-”Amer­i­can Psy­cho” star of “The Killer In­side Me,” is not one of them.

As he nar­rates the bloody ac­tion on the pages of “Killer,” Ford is elu­sive, taunt­ing and pos­sessed of a mean, bru­tal wit. We know he’s fool­ing the small­town neigh­bors he de­spises. But is he fool­ing him­self as well? Or us?

That am­bi­gu­ity helps make the novel Thomp­son’s finest, but it doesn’t trans­late well in the new film by di­rec­tor Michael Win­ter­bot­tom — who did bet­ter

with an­other “un­filmable” book, the pre-post-mod­ern clas­sic “Tris­tram Shandy.”

Here, Lou Ford is a duller en­tity — twisted and de­ceit­ful, to be sure, but lack­ing the sav­age spark that an­i­mates the book. It doesn’t help that Casey Af­fleck, a tal­ented ac­tor mis­cast in this role, lacks the kind of ex­ter­nal good-ol’boy-ness that hides Ford’s psy­choses from the cit­i­zens who trust him with a badge in this 1950s West Texas town. Af­fleck mum­bles thought­fully where Ford would spout corny plat­i­tudes; his eyes are se­cre­tive where Ford’s would project dumb in­no­cence.

The law­man is any­thing but in­no­cent. He com­mits mur­ders on screen that are de­picted with such ex­plicit bru­tal­ity they’ve been spark­ing de­bates about movie vi­o­lence (against women, in par­tic­u­lar) since the film hit the fes­ti­val cir­cuit. Jes­sica Alba, as a pros­ti­tute with whom Ford has a nasty af­fair, takes the worst abuse — and, sick­en­ingly, her char­ac­ter seems to for­give Ford even while he’s de­stroy­ing her pretty face.

There’s room for good-faith po­si­tions on ei­ther side of that eth­i­cal ar­gu­ment. (Win­ter­bot­tom, nat­u­rally, be­lieves that mak­ing view­ers feel each jawcrunch­ing blow is the morally re­spon­si­ble choice.)

But the prob­lem for “Killer” is that it is tone-deaf on other fronts as well — from the Western swing on the sound­track, turn­ing what should be nail­bit­ing mo­ments into jaun­tily ironic ones, to the un­sat­is­fy­ing fric­tion be­tween per­son­al­i­ties when folks fi­nally start Jes­sica Alba plays a pros­ti­tute who suf­fers some of the film’s al­ready no­to­ri­ous bru­tal­ity. to sus­pect that Ford has some­thing to do with all the dead bod­ies pop­ping up around his county.

Most un­for­giv­able is the way Win­ter­bot­tom and screen­writer John Cur­ran flub the novel’s sus­pense, which es­ca­lates so de­li­ciously that it be­comes al­most im­pos­si­ble to stop read­ing when any given chap­ter ends.

As its pace fal­ters, this “Killer” be­comes not just a dis­ap­point­ment for the novel’s fans and a provo­ca­tion to sadism-averse movie­go­ers, but a fail­ure in gen­eral — one that should in­spire hes­i­ta­tion on the part of any fu­ture filmmaker tempted to adapt this nov­el­ist’s psy­cho­log­i­cally twisted, bril­liantly plot­ted sto­ries. Rat­ing: R for vi­o­lence, nu­dity, lan­guage. Run­ning time: 1 hour, 49 min­utes. Theater: Do­bie.

Michael Muller

Amy Stan­ton (Kate Hud­son) doesn’t know what she’s in for when she gets into the car with Lou Ford (Casey Af­fleck) in ‘The Killer In­side Me.’ While he might ap­pear to be the trusted sher­iff’s deputy, his darker side will soon emerge.

Michael Muller

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