By all appearances The Killer Inside Me’s setting of Central City Texas is the epitome of the cinematic small town complete with slow–drawl country music tunes a businessman who practically owns the town and a doe-eyed lady who most of the townsfolk love but whose heart belongs to the deputy sheriff. Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) though is no ordinary deputy sheriff as we learn when he is ordered to evict a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (the always gorgeous Jessica Alba) because she has taken up with the son of town boss Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Unfortunately for Conway this is Jessica Alba we're talking about! After a rather interesting exchange with Joyce Ford takes up with her himself and hatches a plan for them to skip town together. When Ford’s fiancé Amy Stanton (a fetching Kate Hudson) suspects an affair between the two trouble ensues and a maelstrom of murder mischief and mayhem soon envelops Central City.
Based on the novel by Jim Thompson who also wrote The Grifters and The Getaway as well as screenplays for Stanley Kubrick’s films The Killing and Paths of Glory The Killer Inside Me is one of the better films of its ilk wherein the “hero” is actually a disturbed — and disturbing — individual. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) and featuring a supporting cast of actors that could each carry their own film (and indeed some have) including Bill Pullman Simon Baker and Elias "I’m not Christopher Meloni and he is not me" Koteas this movie should be penciled into everyone’s must–see list.
To answer the main question on the minds of the panting fanboys: Yes both of the film's buxom beauties Alba and Hudson show heaping gobs of skin. Unfortunately this is film noir a genre in which attractive female characters seldom survive to see the final credits roll.
With that in mind a word of warning: The Killer Inside Me does get a bit gratuitous with its violence and while it's not Bad Lieutenant- or David Lynch-level gratuitous it's still out-there blunt-trauma-to-the-head violent. Winterbottom makes the dangerous choice of rarely cutting away from the looks on the faces of those involved in these scenes and we as viewers become willing accomplices in Ford’s actions. In the film’s defense the violence is actually used for character development and there are enough moments of subtle bleak black humor to counterbalance it. But if you're the squeamish type you might wish to stay home.
Long out of the shadow of his more famous brother Casey Affleck comes out of his own shadow in The Killer Inside Me creating a character as charismatically menacing as a villainous protagonist could be; an Anton Chigurh you could bring home to meet your family. With no shred of his “Baastaahn” accent apparent Affleck speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like he's about to crack at any instant; because usually he is. It's the kind of role that will be talked about for years (if this film gets the proper promotion that is) and in my opinion will make him a very early candidate for Best Actor.
Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Ava Marchetta (Haylie Duff) are heiresses to the multimillion-dollar Proactiv-like cosmetics company started up by their late father. Much like all the celebutante sisters in Hollywood (the Hiltons the Olsens the Simpsons et. al.) they live the privileged life--seamless entry into the hottest clubs maids waiting on them hand-and-foot actor boyfriends etc. But early on in Material Girls their high lives come crashing down when at a gala feting their beloved dad a video exposes the cosmetics line as dangerous. Their father’s oldest friend Tommy (Brent Spiner) tries to work damage-control magic but the damage is already done only to be worsened when the ditzy sisters accidentally set fire to their mansion. Forced to relocate to their maid’s (Maria Conchita Alonso) tiny apartment blacklisted by the people that matter--and their credit cards declined--the gals decide to go to work as um private investigators looking into what they believe was a scheme to sabotage the company. Along the way self-discovery bangs ‘em over the head. Separately the Duff sisters stay the ‘tween course recycling virtually the same type of role in the same movie and TV show after movie and TV show. The riskiest role either of the two has taken was Haylie’s turn in Napoleon Dynamite--not because it was edgy but rather because it had a potentially larger or smaller appeal than just the Lizzie McGuire crowd. Together in their first movie collaboration it’s double the nausea. It’s as if they decided to come together under an even wider safety net. Their talent as actresses won’t be clear until they take an ever-so-marginal chance but un-ironically they know how to play mini-mogul sisters. Anjelica Huston also stars as Fabiella the one trying to swoop in on Marchetta Cosmetics’ misfortune. We know precisely what we’re getting with Huston but we may never know why she took this role. Same can be said for Lukas Haas as a pro-bono lawyer who went from fare like Gus Van Sant’s Last Days to this (should-be-made-for-Nickelodeon) movie. Martha Coolidge has directed so much TV (The Twilight Zone Sex and the City) and film (Lost in Yonkers The Prince & Me) over the years it’s surprising to learn she wasn’t behind the movie that looks like Material Girls’ biopic: White Chicks. In all mock seriousness though it’s sad to see anyone attempt to helm what can essentially be considered “Duff Corporation” movies let alone a talented Hollywood vet like Coolidge. She had to know the limited parameters she was cornering herself into here but the director still manages to seem a bit lost. For example when she uses visual techniques such as juxtaposed scenes—which looked cool in say Sideways--it feels almost offensive here. It’s the dead-tired rich-girls-to-blissfully-bourgeois-girls story however that delivers the deathblow to the gut. And it’s Coolidge’s (possibly correct) assumption a movie that can be so narrowly focused toward a specific sect of moviegoers is the one that delivers a blow to the soul.
Still living with his immigrant family in Brighton Beach Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) has had enough--the family restaurant has no customers his cook brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) can't cook and his mother nags his devout Jewish father who is anything but Jewish. So instead of getting sucked into a go-nowhere life Yuri naturally gets into arms dealing. After selling a local hood an Uzi Yuri discovers that he might actually have the knack. He recruits his younger brother--more for moral support than business acumen--and begins to soar up the arms dealing food chain attaining wealth luxury and an exciting lifestyle along the way. The only thing he lacks is his dream girl--Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) a Brighton Beach beauty queen-turned-supermodel. But Yuri finally wins her heart too by posing as a legitimate businessman with more money than he actually has. Ava senses he's not legit but just as long as they have their penthouse overlooking Central Park and a chauffeured limo she'd rather not know what he does. Meanwhile Yuri's interests clash with his chief rival Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm) an old-school gun runner coming to terms with the end of the Cold War. Backed into a corner Yuri is given a choice between continued competition or none at all and his decision sends Yuri into a spiral of rapid moral decay despite ever-increasing profits. His greatest struggle through it all has been with himself. In the end he learns to accept the Golden Rule of arms dealing: Never wage war with anybody especially yourself.
The highlight of Niccol's biting satire is undoubtedly Cage's performance as the amoral but charming Yuri. How is it that we root for this loathsome character when he deserves our scorn? Perhaps the answer lies in Cage himself who is adept at playing scoundrels with humor and aplomb. Not many other actors come to mind who can pull off a frantic matter-of-factness quite like Cage a crucial quality needed to disarm the audience into rooting for a guy who gets stinking rich by selling guns to murderers. Equally likeable is Yuri's best customer Baptiste Senior (Eamonn Walker) the president of Liberia whose only competition for the prize of Most Ruthless Killer is his own son (Sammi Rotibi). Meanwhile Ethan Hawke shows up every now and then as Jack Valentine a by-the-book Interpol agent hot on Yuri's trail. Valentine's adherence to the law allows him to routinely miss opportunities to nab his foe. He won't yield an inch and at one point even keeps Yuri in custody without charges for the full maximum of twenty-four hours but not a second more. Bridget Moynahan's performance as Yuri's wife is serviceable though she does effectively convey the hurt and sorrow of a wife deceived. Leto's turn as Yuri's drug-addicted brother has both its comedic and tragic moments--his character has the most defined arc and the young actor makes the most of it. Only Ian Holm as Yuri's chief foil seems out of place. Half the time he looks bored to be there the other half he doesn't seem to care. Any old British actor with a smudge of charm could have filled this character's small shoes.
The film opens with Yuri speaking to the camera (his narration runs throughout) but it's the following sequence that pulls us in. Starting at a munitions factory in the Soviet Union we follow a bullet from its creation as it travels through various ports on its way to an African country where it's loaded into an AK-47 and shot into a child's head--a powerful and stylish way to show us the tragedy of the arms business without being dogmatic. From there the film settles down into a standard narrative which is where Cage's impressive performance kicks in. Niccol who also wrote the screenplay offers no apologies for Yuri's detachment from his business dealings though it's tough to pinpoint what thematically he's trying to say. Perhaps it's that the arms trade is a fact of life something all governments partake in--particularly the United States the biggest arms dealer in the world. As we watch Yuri grow in wealth while losing everything else most people consider important--family friends morality--Niccol seems content showing us the world as is without offering solutions. The last we see of Yuri is in some war-torn part of the world standing among thousands of spent bullet casings. He has accepted his fate with a casual shrug telling us that so too should we.
At last year's Sundance Film Festival, 26-year-old director Tony Bui scored a monster victory when his debut offering "Three Seasons," took three awards, including both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for best picture. But despite being the toast of Park City, Utah, the film about post-war Vietnam opened quietly in May with a $47,000 debut weekend at the box office. It topped off its theatrical run in August with little more than $2 million in ticket sales.
Despite the assumption that Sundance success equals box-office success, the reality shows that more often than not, the films that win the festival's top awards have a tough time finding audiences in the real world. "I think it's just the nature of the types of films shown at Sundance," says Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Generally, these films are not intended to be blockbusters and are more artistic in nature. The whole notion of the festival is quality of the work."
The Cinderella story of "The Blair Witch Project" filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is often cited as the ultimate Sundance success. They were the guys with the $40,000 film that went on to gross more than $140 million. But what many fail to realize is that despite debuting at Sundance in 1999, "Blair Witch" didn't win a single prize there. It wasn't even a film in competition.
"'Blair Witch Project"'s are the Halley's comets of films," says Hollywood Reporter film writer Dana Harris. "They come every few years, and people don't realize how many indie films that do nothing come and go in between."
One of the films that fell through the commercial cracks was "Judy Berlin." The film won Eric Mendelsohn a directing award at the 1999 event. But while the film went on to work the festival scene, it never had a theatrical run in the United States.
"A lot of these films [that debut at Sundance] don't have distribution," Dergarabedian says. "And the reward of Sundance is that you might get a distribution deal, and your film gets seen. [But] a lot of movies go in and will not get distributed."
The argument that award winners at Sundance might not be representative of the general moviegoing community is a powerful one. Unfortunately, it fails to explain one of the strangest epilogues to the 1999 festival.
First-time filmmaker Gough Lewis made headlines last January with his documentary about a 22-year-old Singaporean honors-student-by-day/hard-core porn actress by night. To some, "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story," even more than "Blair Witch," was the talk of the festival. Its reach was strong and immediate: People were enthralled, outraged, disturbed and/or disgusted. But despite all the attention (and it received far, far more than either "Three Seasons" or "Judy Berlin"), the film has yet to see a domestic theatrical run. (It is finally slated to open in a limited release early next month).
In the case of "Sex," all the buzz may have actually hurt the film's chances -- as word eventually leaked that director Lewis had at one time been romantically linked to his subject. With his objectivity called into question, some believe Lewis destroyed any chance he had at making a legitimate, compelling feature.
"It didn't surprise me that ["Sex"] didn't get distribution," says Harris. "The film was a bit of a disappointment in that it was intellectually bankrupt and kind of broke the code of documentary filmmaking."
In the end, it really is the luck of the draw. Audiences are fickle, the fates are tricky, Hollywood's tough. Even some of Sundance's most-well-known alumni ("Clerks," "The Brothers McMullen" and "El Mariachi") couldn't summon the broad appeal to top $10 million at the domestic box office.
"At Sundance, you're lucky to get in at all," Dergarabedian says. "You're even luckier if you win and get a distribution deal. The formula you need at Sundance is not the same for a box-office hit.
"I don't think that's really the emphasis. The emphasis is on the quality and artistry of the work."