IT SMARTS to watch scenes like the ones in The Killer Inside Me, where a man beats a woman beyond unconsciousness. It's not just the instinctive recoil from violence, or the perturbing prevalence of females as victims onscreen. Director Michael Winterbottom's eschewing of smoke and mirrors in his portrayal of these events is arguably less a romanticization than the off-screen suggestions most films employ—swollen eyes under sunglasses and implication-laden flinches aren't really all that much more polite. The women here are into rough sex; they don't know they're in bed with a serial killer. When the time comes, turned on a dime, you could almost call it death by surprise.

The plot is based on an early-'50s pulp novel by Jim Thompson, and its perspective is that of Lou Ford (the better-and-better Casey Affleck), a West Texas deputy with a history of kinky babysitters and sexual abuse. From his voiceovers we know he's aware he's got problems; he overcompensates by cultivating himself as a gentle aw-shucks kind of small-town fella, until a prostitute, Joyce (Jessica Alba), rolls into town—they have a whip-happy, erotically asphyxiated kind of love, but a seemingly sincere one. Between her willingness to let him explore his conflicted relationship with women and a muddled revenge plot, it's not long until Ford's sinister side boils over.

As a character study, it's a frustrating one. Ford is persistently likeable when he's not exploding, and unlike many depictions of his type, he doesn't seem to relish the murders. Upon leaving Joyce bloodied on the floor he's authentically distraught, muttering, "I'm so sorry baby, you seemed awfully surprised." Yet despite the complexity Ford exhibits, and the magnetic performance by Affleck, this great-looking, wryly scored film is an oddly hollow experience, perhaps because we're used to being given a message with our violence, while Killer is simply straightforward: a faithful recreation of an old tale penned to thrill.