The latest effort from self-inflicting controversy magnet Michael Winterbottom is more than any other flaw, difficult to enjoy. Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is the young law man in a small West Texan town of the bad old fifties. He narrates with a few pieces of good ol’ wisdom on his way to drive Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), a none too subtle prostitute, out of town. She hits him in defiance, he responds in kind and before long they’re engaging in the films first of many truly uncomfortable scenes. What seems at first to be rape becomes a loving, if sado-masochistic relationship between the Deputy and the ‘whore’. Joyce is however still a working girl and her top client happens to be Elmer Conway (Jay R. Ferguson) son of Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), oil baron and the most powerful man in town. In the middle of all this is union boss Joe Rothman (Elias Koteas), concerned about Conway the elder’s attempts to remove him by any means necessary. Rothman has information on Lou’s brother, killed while working for Conway Construction believing it to have been murder linked to a dark past. He spends the entire film in conflict investigating his suspicions only when it doesn’t threaten his own position. His unnerving ability to read people and pick up on lost details only comes to the fore when it is really too late, people are already dying.Joyce & Lou (Alba & Affleck) share a moment togetherLou indeed has a killer inside him, as the title would imply, but his cruel streak is evident long before he takes his first life. He relishes beating Joyce with his belt, we see him stub out a cigar on a homeless man’s hand, and he passes off news of his brother’s alleged murder with little interest. Even when his girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) risks her reputation to sneak into his house to proposition him he seems more annoyed than excited. He is already removed from society, possibly even from humanity, his reaction to the horrific events he witnesses and participates in are chillingly subdued. Much credit must be given here to Affleck who is at time menacing, pitiful, wounded, removed yet always believable. He is effortlessly charming while emitting a suffocating sense of unease. Lou Ford is a man no longer connected to society.Lou enjoying an acceptable viceThe first murder in particular is unrelentingly brutal; it could be no clearer that Lou is capable of convincing women to take any level of punishment. This is the most controversial element; the most explicit violence is towards women, and always women who placidly take whatever they’re given to the end. There is not one female character that stands up to Lou, only Amy comes anywhere near close. Her confrontation of him over his infidelity leads to her acceptance of his word as fact and her complete committal to him. Kate Hudson deserves praise for keeping her in mind despite her minimal screen time but the film needs her more. She represents what Lou has to lose as he follows the ill-advised path to destruction, but she is only a tertiary figure in his life, a surrogate for the girl his rival has laid claim to.The dark side of fifties americaIt all seems a little too self-indulgent, but where the source novel’s aim was to expose the dark side of the post-war American dream, this a slave to the box office bonus of unacceptable behaviour on screen. While it’s perfectly acceptable to have Kick-Ass bound and beaten putting a woman in the same situation is not, whether that owes more to the fantasy setting than gender roles is up for debate. What is certain is several men are wounded and killed throughout this film but none in such unflinching circumstances as the women, for the most part they fight back, but it is always quick. In two cases it actually takes place of screen. Why is there such focus on the controversial then? I would suppose that it is to recreate the shock that accompanied the novel, more than half a century old now. In just the last few years we’ve had more disturbing (The Black Dahlia), more biting (Short Cuts) and even comedic (Desperate Housewives) insights into the evils lurking beneath wholesome family life. We’re treated to a series of jaunty songs of the period performed by the cast or playing over shots of characters driving between decidedly un-jaunty scenarios. As it is the film follows seems to walk the unsteady ground between Millar’s Crossing and Funny Games, daring you to turn away from it’s most extreme moments perpetually sexualising them. With this in mind it does succeed for the most part, it’s exploitative but never without reason. Affleck’s Lou seems to genuinely care for Alba’s Joyce, giving probably her best performance to date.After all of this the ending is a bitter disappointment. We have one character seemingly pulled out of nowhere to deliver one speech before leaving without warning. There are two points about five to ten minutes beforehand which would have worked as perfect end points leaving a stark portrayal of mental illness and disenfranchised society. Instead we are given a needlessly bombastic set piece, poorly realised and painfully removed from the rest of the film. The film drops a full star for holding its audience in such contempt.