The sarcastic faux banalities Lou offers people he meets, for his own light amusement, may betray a more complicated mind than the handsome young detective likes to make plain. He’s also shouldering a tragic past involving a lost brother-in-law which in-the-know locals (including union man Elias Koteas), the city fathers (including Ned Beatty), his secret long-term girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) and fellow police colleagues (including Tom Bower’s sheriff) happily connive in keeping buried. But few realise that the man is a walking timebomb. However, the day soon comes when he’s sent to chase off a local prostitute, the beautiful and fiery Joyce (Jessica Alba), and receives the slap that is to trigger in him an explosion of unexpected passion, intricate deceit and murderous self-destruction…
The film arrives on screens heralded by some box-office-boosting bad publicity, with shockwaves emanating from some who have witnessed the film’s face-pulverising, hard-to-stomach bouts of violence. Yet this again-atypical film from Winterbottom, the genre-swapping director of ‘A Mighty Heart’, ‘Genova’ and ‘The Road to Guantanamo’, is a much more sober affair than its early, controversial press might suggest.
Faithful – awfully – to Thompson’s devil’s-résumé-style source text and despairing worldview, it also occupies an emotional space of unnerving calm. The unfussy, if lazily expressive, cinematography (by Winterbottom regular Marcel Zyskind) of familiar ’50s Americana, the unobtrusive set design of jail, courthouse and Texan home, and the relaxed, cowpoke-paced editing are all in concert with it. Together they produce a dirge-like accompaniment to a hypnotic and remarkable central performance by Affleck.
With his other Ford (movie-stealing coward Robert in Andrew Dominik’s retro-western ‘The Assassination of Jesse James…’) and his terrific turn as the Boston cop in his older brother’s underrated ‘Gone Baby Gone’, the younger Affleck is arguably becoming the most compulsively watchable American actor of his generation. He’s capable of saving a pretentious film (‘The Assassination…’), giving a spine to a potentially diffuse one (‘Gone Baby Gone’) and, as here, giving a sense of mystery and plaintive spirituality to a movie that would otherwise seem underpowered and uncertain of its own moral purpose or profundity. There are other good performances to enjoy – notably from Koteas and Alba – but it’s Affleck who justifies the price of your ticket.