Jim Thompson was one of the great pulp authors of American literary history, a crime novelist active primarily in the '50s who wrote some of the harshest, most grueling prose in 20th Century English fiction. Besides contributing to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and Paths of Glory, he's had a number of his books made and remade as films - some are good, even very good.

But the second cinematic adaptation of The Killer Inside Me is not very good.

The story - and here's where I admit to having never read the 1952 novel nor having seen the 1976 film version of same - concerns a deputy sheriff in a small town in Texas in the late '50s. This fellow, a certain Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), has a bit of a problem: he likes to murder people. Oh, he doesn't come right out and put it that way - he finds a nice way of justifying every death he causes in the span of time depicted in the movie as the necessary and regrettable action that must be taken to stay ahead of the county attorney, Howard Hendricks (Simon Baker) - but in our more jaded age, it's not very hard at all to just call him a serial killer and be done with it.

Without giving away too much plot, the situation is basically thus: in childhood, Ford was sexually abused by his mother, who was herself sexually abused by her husband, his father; she had in the process been conditioned to believe that being beaten was a sign of affection, and forced her son to hit her while she lay naked on the bed. Flash to the adult Ford, and his massively fucked-up child manifests itself in his essentially uncontrollable desire to kill the women he loves, although "love" is a wobbly word to describe what he feels for the prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) and the blandly pleasant Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). Needless to say, his impulses get the better of him - all the more readily, since a bit of money is on the table, thanks to Joyce's relationship with the son of Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), the town's local plutocrat.

Marked by omnipresent first-person narration, The Killer Inside Me is much less about the convolutions of Ford's killings and subsequent cover-ups - it's mostly obvious where things are going in the most general sense - and more about setting up shop inside the psycho's head, trying to analyse what goes on there. There has been at least one truly excellent film made in this mode, the 1986 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; but that film absolutely Went There, probing and digging and making sure that we the audience had no place left to hide, that we were made to confront pure evil with an escape hatch or a security blanket other than storming out of the theater or turning off the television. The Killer Inside Me keeps threatening to take that route, in tiny spots here and there, but when all is said and done it's rather more dispassionate and frankly shallow than anything else. This despite violent scenes that have lead to walk-outs and arch denunciations of the movie as filth and nothing more; and sure, there are two moments that have the sort of brute force that could indeed have made this film a harrowing joyride to hell. But for the most part, director Michael Winterbottom - who is much, much, much better than this - projects such profound disinterest in the material that even the most appalling moments come across through a thick layer of gauze and insipidness.

(And, for those wondering, the film is as misogynistic as you've heard, or ought to be; the two hugely overdone death scenes are both perpetrated against women, while every male who dies, dies quickly or offscreen. Then again, Thompson's work was pretty misogynist already, as was most pulp fiction of the 1950s, as were the 1950s themselves. Anyway, all of this is chasing a dead rabbit: for all the viscera and ludicrously over-Foleyed punching sounds, the celebrated murder scenes don't feel like they're happening to real people, cf "profound disinterest in the material", which rather blunts the misogyny, to my mind).

What we have here is a movie about a deranged psychopath who brutally destroys several people, and the whole thing is presented with a yawn and a shrug. "Oh boy, he sure did turn her face into so much hamburger meat with just his fists", I caught myself thinking, trying hard not to drift, "which I could have guessed from the Looney Tunes sound effects". I won't mention the Foley work again, but Christ goddamn, the sound work in this film is a wreck, up to and including the way that every character's dialogue falls mushily back into the soundtrack.

But to get back on track, neither Winterbottom's direction nor John Curran's screenplay really does anything to make us give a shit about Ford as a tragic victim or as a merciless animal. The thick dollop of Freudian idiocy that stands in for backstory might have passed in the '50s, but it surely does not pass now; yet that is all the more that they try to actually involve us in Ford's broken psychology. And while the viciousness of Thompson's prose thrills on the page - and again, I haven't read The Killer Inside Me specifically - written violence and filmed violence are two very different things, and Winterbottom's treatment of death and brutality is in all the wrong register. I found it hard not to think of No Country for Old Men - and surely that film's success helped to goose the Thompson adaptation out of its decade-long stay in Development Hell - where the Coen brothers found a way to visually depict the particularly apocalyptic, almost mythological quality of Cormac McCarthy's writing; Winterbottom literalises Thompson, but does not capture his essence, does not make the film as grueling and intense an experience as the man's writing was.

The filmmakers seem largely content to fetishise the 1950s rather than deal with the specifics of the plot, at any rate: the production and costume design (by Mark Tildesley and Lynette Meyer, respectively) are both quite lovingly detailed, for a certainty, and Marcel Zyskind's cinematography captures them with a simple but graceful palette of shadows and colors, so at least the thing is pretty to look at. On the other hand, the film is stuffed within an inch of its life with '50s songs that are all used to grotesque effect; sometimes as straight-up ironic counterpoint, sometimes as boilerplate period trapping, and sometimes for no reason at all, though I would guess that Winterbottom lost a bet with a record company executive. At any rate, the music especially serves to put a thick, clear wall between us and the film: so heavily do Winterbottom and company insist on the detailing of their 1950s mise en scène that it became, for me anyway, absolutely impossible to take the film seriously. As an exercise in artifice, yes, but there is no possibility that The Killer Inside Me is meant to be taken on that level.

The one shining star in the whole gloomy affair is Casey Affleck. Rising miles above his co-stars - whoever thought that this was appropriate material for the blithely incompetent Jessica Alba needs to be fired from the cinema industry - Affleck plays Ford with a blank-faced, mumbling lack of internal self that is probably a bit too contemporary for the material; but he credibly suggests that something dark and twitchy is sitting just behind, ready to show itself at any provocation. Affleck is, let's be honest, a perfect choice to play a serial killer: he has that reedy but harsh voice paired with a plain face and a smile that always looks painfully forced. I say all this out of love, absolute love; I think that he's one of the most technically accomplished actors of his generation, and he is absolutely the only element of The Killer Inside Me that does what it says on the label: in his hands, Lou Ford really is a compelling, fascinatingly broken creature, whose mind clearly is a terrifying place to end up, and this is true even as the whole edifice of filmmaking surround the performance just doesn't seem to care about anything. Such a bland thing is a sedate movie about a crazy person.