I was dreading The Killer Inside Me. I knew from multiple spoiler-filled articles in the Sunday papers and elsewhere that Michael Winterbottom's version of the book by pulp novelist Jim Thompson features scenes of extremely graphic violence.
I also knew that Winterbottom had justified his depiction of vicious violence in the predictable pseudo-high-minded way of "serious" filmmakers who court controversy by indulging in slasher-film cruelty - it apparently is important that we filmgoers get a lesson in what violence really looks like.
And though I admired some of Winterbottom's early films (the prolific Lancashire-born director has now made 16 films at the age of only 49), like his wonderfully moving London film Wonderland, more recent ones like Nine Songs (infamous for its explicit un-simulated sex scenes) have been dull, pretentious and swollen with "right-on" self-regard.
Then there was the sheer exhaustion that any long-time film critic feels at the prospect of yet another film about a serial killer, and the accompanying bafflement at just why Hollywood people are so fascinated by them.
However, The Killer Inside Me turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable.Yes, there is one exceptionally nasty violent scene which makes you want to look away from the screen, but the rest of the film is far from an endurance test. It tells its story with brisk efficiency, enjoys its 1950s setting and West Texas landscapes without indulging them, and boasts a terrific central performance by Casey Affleck. He plays Lou Ford, the quiet, amiable deputy sheriff of rapidly expanding Central City. The son of a doctor, he has inherited a large and luxurious house, and when alone listens to opera and reads serious books (a sure sign of a serial killer).
At the beginning of the film he is sent by his boss and mentor Sheriff Maples (Tom Bower) to evict a relatively high-end prostitute from her house outside of town, because she has apparently ensnared the hard-drinking son of the town's leading businessman and employer.
Joyce (Jessica Alba in her first really serious role) turns out to be gorgeous and smart and furious. She attacks Lou and he hits her back and something switches on in both of them. The two of them begin a passionate sado-masochistic affair and Lou starts spending less time with his fiancée Amy (Kate Hudson), a respectable woman who also has a strong sex drive with a masochistic side.
However, Lou has long wanted to kill off the rich man's son who is also in love with Joyce, and he is all too willing to use her unknowingly in the commission of the crime. When he gets away with this murder, he finds himself drawn to more acts of violence but also provokes the suspicion of a number of townspeople who are not as dumb as they seem.
Through flashbacks and some probably unnecessary voiceover you discover that Lou's sadism and amorality has apparent roots in childhood and sexual abuse, though law-abiding fetishists will probably bridle at the suggestion that a taste for spanking leads to psychopathy and murder.
By contemporary standards it is a rather talky genre film, and it takes a while to get used to the Texas accents of the cast. It is also over reliant on music to create tension and some viewers may find Winterbottom's enthusiasm for hand-held shots and close-ups rather queasy-making.
Nevertheless, it is an effective, entertaining pulp-thriller, faithful to the spirit of the source material and the genre. It is gripping and creepy without being disturbingly amoral in the Natural Born Killers tradition, or straining too hard to make its anti-hero sympathetic.
Still, the violence is problematic. It is striking that Winterbottom chooses to show fists smashing into the face of a female character, but when a couple of male characters are killed you merely hear about it from others. It is all very well to force an audience supposedly used to fake, bloodless violence on screen to appreciate what a brutal beating looks and sounds like (as if artsy film directors know so much more about violence than ordinary people), but why put so much effort into brutalising women when the film includes a hanging that takes place entirely off screen?
You almost wonder if Winterbottom has absorbed violent misogyny from the "Tipton Three", the real life Islamists and Taliban fans he depicted with such credulous reverence in his docu-drama, The Road to Guantanamo.