WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Small-town Sheriff’s Deputy Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is engaged to a sweet and doting Amy (Kate Hudson).
Joyce (Jessica Alba) is the unnaturally beautiful new woman in town. The authorities think she’s working as a prostitute, so Lou is sent in to check her out.
There’s an uncontrollable attraction between the local lady of the night and the mild-mannered cop and before long, they’re involved in an affair that starts passionate but soon becomes violent.
From spanking to punching, he becomes increasingly brutal in his treatment of her, but she can’t get enough of him. The more he beats her, the more she screams that she loves him.
Amy seems to accept the same behaviour from him.
Now, everyone in this town seems to have their own agenda, and there are grudges galore. The local property developer Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) wants Joyce’s house. Unknown to him, she’s messing around with his son Elmer. Lou has it in for Chester, who he believes was responsible for his brother’s death on a building site.
Lou sees an opportunity to kill a few birds with one stone – a little too literally.
On one of his regular visits to Joyce, he beats her to a pulp, having arranged to meet Elmer there a little later – by the time the cops arrive, Joyce and Elmer’s lifeless, bloodied bodies lie on the floor and Lou is long gone. The crime scene looks obvious. Joyce and Elmer killed each other, right?
But as time goes on, people start to suspect that all is not what it seems.
Clues are pointing to Lou, so he has to cover his tracks.
This leads to a violent spiral of double-dealing and death.
The last thing a secret psychopath needs is the world closing in on him.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
No stranger to controversy, Michael Winterbottom walks headlong into another storm, with a film in which every female character seems to be begging for beatings. To a degree, such misogyny features equally strongly in Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel of the same name, but Winterbottom’s explanatory flashbacks to Lou’s childhood veer further towards the misogyny than his source material.
There is a story to be told here which is served by the violence, so as difficult as it is to watch, it doesn’t feel gratuitous and it might have felt more conspicuous by its absence, had Winterbottom failed to have the courage of his convictions. There’s no doubt, though, that this makes it a tremendously uncomfortable film-going experience that most would feel too embarrassed to admit to finding in any way entertaining.
Casey Affleck delivers a smart, underplayed – if a little mumbling – turn as the central character, but as a character without a single redeeming factor, it’s a tough watch for any audience. Being asked to identify with a violent, woman-beating, murdering psychopath is a hard ask. But at the other end of the scale, the women can’t emerge from this film with any dignity, knowingly and willingly walking into Lou’s dark world.
It’s well shot and tautly plotted, but emotionally as difficult as it is unsatisfying. Lou is so unpleasant, you won’t feel you want him to get away with his dastardly trail of death and destruction, but from a narrative point of view, you feel he has to, or else you’d be wasting your time watching the film.
Once you feel the story heading for its inevitable denouement, it’s just a matter of time as you watch it unfold, knowing what’s coming, making each further violent act seem even more futile.
It’s a bold piece of film-making, but one which no-one should really actively want to watch.