You do worry about Casey Affleck. Or you would, if you were stuck in a lift with him and he started making a strange clicking noise with his teeth, trust me. The guy is born to play warped, openly malignant, grown-up Damien-types, wearing a face in The Killer Inside Me that looks like it’s disappointed it’s not hovering over the next victim with a serrated blade, amused that the twitching, bloodied heap at his feet might have ever contemplated escape. Even amidst the inconveniently wearying battering he doles out to both Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, Affleck looks pained with lethargic ennui, as though tasked with something enjoyable only in its conception, not its manifestation. It’s the opposite of a thousand-yard-stare, the look he appropriates on screen at times; more a millimetre-pinpoint-stare into your soul that you really don’t want snapping into focus anywhere in your direction. A kind of infinite hangdog malevolence feeding a posse of demons.
If you’ve seen Affleck in The Assassination Of Jesse James, you’ll know what I mean. In that, he acts Brad Pitt and Sam Rockwell into another, lesser film, so brilliantly apart is he as ‘The Coward Robert Ford’. He is genuinely sensational, to the extent that you haven’t really seen anything quite like it, and you’re wondering how his brother feels at being so totally overshadowed (I know that’s a fairly pointless thought, but I do wonder if Baffleck is both delighted and horrendously jealous, as I’m sure he must be) in the acting stakes.
Here, he’s a vacantly intense deputy sheriff with a bit of a fondness for sex, ultraviolence and beating women, particularly those he’s managed to spin into his barbed wire web of oedipal nightmares; those that reciprocate him being worthy of little other than horrific death, obtuse justifications and deflected blame aside. He’s a pathological murderer, then, once caught in a generational cycle of abuse and now festering in dusty small-townsville waiting for the next focal point to occupy his bruised raison d’etre. He apologises as he batters defenceless women, but does nothing to abate his crazed assault. He hangs the pleasant local kid that may potentially get in his way. Yep, he’s hatstand. And, as ever with performances like this one, you’re caught between breathless and potentially heinous enjoyment of a barnstorming performance and chastising yourself for cheering on a maniac.
Affleck is after ridding the town of a prostitute (Alba) at the outset, only to find that her twistedly submissive response to his goaded aggression means he wants to keep her around for the time being; cue a bit of a mess once the prospect of an escape fatally exits Alba’s lips and the town bigshot’s son becomes the second of a pair of murders. Thereafter, Affleck shimmies and feints with nary a twitch, the boyish, nutty face of unassuming innocence, as Elias Koteas and Simon Baker beg to differ. When Bill Pullman turns up, an increasingly weird presence in an odd assortment of films, you know it’s going to be hard for Affleck to sit it out.
The violence: yes, it’s shocking. Women being beaten to death is shocking. (The film is about a lunatic that kills women because he is psychologically tormented and inexorably warped – that’s what it says on the tin, and the contents don’t shy away from the fact.) The only relevant question here should be: is the violence an indispensable element of the film? And the answer is yes, resoundingly. The visceral nastiness of it, the grisly nausea ellicited is a purposeful jolt out of a comfort zone: this is not palatable violence of the ilk normally present and cartoonishly correct – this is teeth-thudding and jaw-splintering. There is a verisimilitude here that you can’t absorb easily and comprehend: this jars like a left-hander, long after the credits roll. Yes, Winterbottom is a delirious, gleeful provocateur, but here (unlike with 9 Songs, which was nothing more than an exercise, a stance) it works horribly well and deepens the depiction of off-the-rails psychosis, renders it scathingly powerful. And there may be essay-length arguments to be had as to why he chose Hudson and Alba for this, and what he’s saying about our relationship to film – but that’s another story.
Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba have never been better, and Michael Winterbottom deserves a lot of credit here (though come on Michael; enough with the daft arguments for the film: they’re not actually necessary but the ones you have marshalled are nonsense) but Affleck deserves an Oscar for humanising a potentially slasher-esque 2D weirdo.