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The Killer Inside Me stands out at Tribeca Film Fest

The Tribeca Film Festival, Robert De Niro’s annual glam-fest on the Hudson, is glitzy and obnoxious and very L.A. – which is exactly why I enjoy covering it.  It’s like traveling to the West Coast to get a glimpse of how exotic Hollywood lives without leaving New York City.  It’s a fun lark, a break from the heavy-handed sobriety of “Film as Art” that defines New York Film Festival and The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films, which TFF arrives fresh on the heels of.

Like most festivals there’s a lot of dregs to sit through to discover the gems, but when you emerge from a screening of Soul Kitchen from Fatih Akin, the most exciting director Germany has produced since Werner Herzog, or the under-the-radar (though not for long) doc Sons of Perdition you remember just how powerful cinema can be.  De Niro founded the fest to lift spirits after 9/11, after all.  In other words, to remind us of the joy that got all of us – even the most hard-nosed film snobs – going to the movies in the first place.

The best case in point this year is Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me.  As a big fan of the author Jim Thompson, whose pulp novel it’s based on, and an even bigger fan of Thompson’s collaborator Stanley Kubrick (for whom he wrote the screenplays for both The Killing and Paths of Glory), I was initially skeptical that even a wildly talented director like Winterbottom could do the book justice.  Even more so when he cast pretty boy Casey Affleck in the role of Lou Ford, the charming, small-town West Texas sheriff’s deputy and cold-blooded psychopath inside whose head the entire tale takes place.  When the director of A Clockwork Orange has been quoted calling the book “Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered,” you know the adaptation bar has already been set sky high.

And Mr. Winterbottom has risen to the occasion, crafting an early 50s noir that is so faithful to its original source that the director hasn’t so much adapted as just straightforwardly filmed the book, smartly getting out of the way so Thompson’s twisting and twisted vision can fully shine through.  Using a script from John Curran that itself lifts the juiciest nuggets from the novel, such as the ominous line “It’s always lightest before the dark” and a beautiful monologue that begins “A weed is a plant out of place” (Thompson was also the guy who penned the pulp classics The Getaway and The Grifters so he knew how to turn a cinematic phrase) Winterbottom goes beyond telling the story of a man whose sadomasochistic relationship with the prostitute Joyce Lakeland (played by Jessica Alba, thankfully the only weak link in the cast) sets into motion a wave of serial killings.

The director in fact builds an entire atmosphere, starting with the exquisite production design and period costumes, a score that includes everything from sultry jazz to soaring opera, and Marcel Zyskind’s evocative cinematography that captures the vast expanse of the western landscape (Oklahoma substituting for Texas) in long shots and Lou Ford’s steely lying eyes in close-ups.  Fortunately, Casey Affleck’s boyish looks, slow mumbled drawl that strangely sounds a bit like Bill Clinton, clenched mouth and stiff body language are pitch perfect for the outwardly laidback and inwardly hyper-alert Lou.

Surrounding Affleck is a knockout, supporting cast (minus Alba) that includes Kate Hudson as Lou’s clueless, well-bred, often horny girlfriend Amy Stanton, Ned Beatty as pompous good-old-boy Chester Conway and Elias Koteas as the corrupt union leader Joe Rothman.  And then there’s Bill Pullman in a cameo as loudmouthed lawyer Billy Boy Walker and Tom Bower as Sheriff Bob Maples, whose awakening to Lou’s true nature unfolds onscreen with believable heartbreaking subtlety.

Indeed, the only true digression from Thompson’s book might be Winterbottom’s and Affleck’s choice to cleanse Lou of the remorseless contempt and downright joy he gets from playing his cat-and-mouse game, from toying with the townsfolk, all of whom he believes to be his intellectual inferiors.  But by the time we reach the “Bonnie and Clyde” style blowout ending – after so much impersonal, fast and sudden violence straight out of a Scorsese hit – the proof is in the gleeful hardboiled mayhem.