Nobody in the sleepy town of Central City would peg the Deputy Sheriff for a killer. Lou Ford plays it humble with an extra side of Southern corn; always gosh-darned happy to help. In a voiceover lifted from the book, he admits this is all an act, but the way these passages are edited, we don't get as powerful a sense of the fear he lives with; of being a slave to his darkest desires. When he asks prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba) to leave town, things turn violent in an instant. It's shocking, but there isn't the deeper impact of knowing how Ford has tried to keep a lid on this monster.
Winterbottom dispenses with the Freudian explanations as detailed in the novel, though he does acknowledge a rape Ford committed when he was just a boy. It's an indefinite, almost ghostly image in the book - as Ford is reluctant to face it - but Winterbottom spares us few details. It becomes apparent that Ford's brother took the rap for this crime and has since died, though Ford suspects he was murdered by local construction magnate Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Having kick-started a sadomasochistic affair with Joyce, he agrees to help her blackmail Conway over her relationship with his son (Jay R Ferguson). But Ford is hatching his own plan.
Bodies pile up as Ford tries to cover his tracks, and as each murder becomes more graphic, it's very easy to become disengaged with the film. Winterbottom goes for close-ups on crushed skulls and spilling blood and, in case that isn't offensive enough, he repeats the images in instant flashback. He'll then turn up the music, an upbeat bluegrass score that wouldn't be out of place in a screwball comedy. His approach is far too glib and though it might be a reflection of Ford's countenance, Winterbottom conveniently forgets that this man is putting on a front. He skates over the most telling moments when Ford reflects on what he must do and why he feels he must do it.
Ford's relationship with the girl next door (nice-as-pie Kate Hudson) allows for a glimpse of the man he could have been. At times he seems genuinely in love, but those moments come too late in the story to create any meaningful tension. Earlier on, Ford apologises to Joyce as he pounds her senseless and, though Affleck is sincere, it seems like a crass attempt to illustrate his duality. What is even more difficult to accept is the insinuation that these women are 'asking for it'. It is a facet of the novel, but it feels as badly judged as those old westerns with John Wayne doling out the spankings. It was always going to be a tall order, trying to project the thoughts of a madman onto the big screen, but it's the bold swagger of Winterbottom as he sidesteps the issue which really gets under your skin.
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