Who's In It: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas, Ned Beatty, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman
The Basics: 1950s Texas lawman Lou Ford is all folksy smiles and pleasantries to the townspeople he presides over. One problem, though. He's got "the sickness," as he calls it in voice-over narration, a terrifyingly black hole of psychosis that involves the buttering up of everyone around him and then turning them into burnt toast. With his male victims it's straightforward brutality: shooting them in the forehead, unexpectedly burning drunk drifters' hands with the lit end of his cigar. But for the women in his life it's more complicated. He woos them with violent sexual games until it's time to really go in for the kill. And why does he do this? Clues from his past flash on screen, but mostly it's just because life is horrible and then some random dude beats you to death in the face, that's why.
What's The Deal: We're used to being sold violence as entertainment. It's stylized and packaged like a big splattery catharsis cake. We cheer for '80s metaphor Patrick Bateman or comic-booky killers like Freddy Kruger or righteous avengers like Taken's Liam Neeson slashing a path through generic bad guy after generic bad guy in a search for his kidnapped virgin daughter. And every one of those killers gives us the distance we need from feeling the effects of actual violence. But when Casey Affleck begins punching Jessica Alba to death, you feel (and hear, thanks to the crazy sound design) every single blow. He holds the camera on it, not implicating you in the murder like Funny Games director Michael Haneke would, but not reveling in it either. He just wants to make it feel like the death it's supposed to be. How you react is up to you.
The Biggest Problem: The Coen Brothers, at their best, know how to showcase the banality of violence, relieving the tension by letting you laugh a little at their hicksploitation even as you're watching a man being thrown into a wood chipper. David Cronenberg, in The History of Violence, turns down the volume even more and refuses to resolve the horror for you. But Winterbottom seems like he's stuck somewhere in the middle, wanting to create an atmosphere of everyday life while simultaneously conveying the beyond-morality pit of darkness living in the murderer's heart. And weirder still, he does this by going for a distractingly condescendingly winking retro tone that's of the 1950s instead of about the 1950s, complete with a sweetly written "The End" title card presented as a whole lot of people go up in smoke. It's both unsettling and annoying.
One Major And Two Minor Reasons To See It Anyway: Affleck is great here. He's got the slimy creep thing down cold and is chilling from start to finish. Meanwhile, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, two women who've never been overly praised for their acting, take on the punishing roles of Affleck's most helpless victims and really elevate their game. When they go, you feel it, and it's because they make it happen. So maybe Good Luck Chuck and Bride Wars weren't their fault after all.