Jim Thompson was, perhaps, our most effectively amoral pulp writer. Dubbed the “Dimestore Dostoevsky,” many of his legion of better than 30 books concern bad women, miserable drifters, corrupt cops, ruined family legacies and more beat-down violence than a typical UFC competition. As such, he’s not for everyone. So over the top was he, so able to glide past social/moral quandaries into the hearts and souls of his mortally wounded characters, he remains a bell weather benchmark for all other crime/noir writers. That his most famous novel had only had one much-toned-down film adaptation, then, isn’t such a surprise. Director Michael Winterbottom has set out to right that particular wrong with an adaptation much closer in tone and spirit of Thompson’s pitch-dark original. For better and/or worse, he succeeds.
The story revolves around the duality of our narrator, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a seemingly docile sheriff’s deputy, who pretends to be honest and upright, if not somewhat slow-witted, but, in reality, is a sadistic, twisted villain, who kills without a qualm when the mood strikes him. In the course of things, he falls in love — and brutally murders — a prostitute (Jessica Alba), her rich boy lover (Jay R. Ferguson); his fiancé (Kate Hudson); and various other characters who get in the way of his scheme. Though I use “scheme” loosely. Unlike the standard noir plot (usually involving a heartless beauty and a giant sum of money, obtained illegally), Lou doesn’t appear to have any particular goal in mind, other than to stake his revenge on a few people who might have rubbed him the wrong way. Instead, he’s in it for the sadistic pleasure of killing people, especially those women who make the mistake of caring for him.
And make no mistake, they pay very dearly. The film has raised hackles for its absolutely over-the-top misogyny — the brutal beatdown of Alba’s prostitute character is nearly as depraved and unsettling as the tunnel rape scene in Irreversible — but, after all, that is the point. Ford isn’t just an unreliable narrator whose first person account of things creates the cutting irony in Thompson’s original novel, he’s truly a psychopath without any emotional attachment to anyone else. Clues are given as to what has shaped him this way — including sexual abuse at the hand of his adopted brother — but, in the end, there is simply no explanation for someone this demented and cold.
The part seems about right for Casey Affleck, who was nothing short of a revelation in Andrew Dominik’s brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. He was born to play these kinds of off-kilter characters, so preoccupied by their own peculiarity, every sentence and gesture shines like an afterthought. It starts with his voice, trembling and uncertain, as if every word is released from his lips by accident, but also in his blank stare. There could be nothing going on behind it, or everything, but its unclear until he chooses to reveal himself. Whether or not you can stomach the end result is truly a question of temperament.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.comand his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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