Antonio Campos (Afterschool) ably avoids the sophomore slump with Simon Killer, another study of a seemingly functional individual slipping ever closer towards an unsettling precipice. Destined to alienate many audiences with its sedate pace and dark subject matter, it is nevertheless an exceedingly well-wrought, thoughtful character study for those prepared to go the distance.
Brady Corbet, an enormously talented young actor who has made a career playing troubled youths in countless films – including Thirteen, Mysterious Skin, Funny Games U.S., Martha Marcy May Marlene (which Campos produced) and Melancholia – is superb here as the title character. Simon is a recent college graduate in a tailspin after a devastating break-up, and finds himself retreating to Paris for solace, where he connects with a sympathetic prostitute, Victoria (Mati Diop), whose similar desire for respite ultimately unveils the toxic, dark side of his persona.
Campos certainly makes the best of his leading man, lingering on him and whoever he is acting opposite with lengthy, unbroken takes in which the camera barely moves. Often the focus on Corbet’s blank, expressionless face only cements the possibility of his sociopathy, and at other times the formalist approach enhances the banal nature of his desperate existence, as he tries to strike up conversation with locals – including one gorgeous French woman who takes quite the liking to him – and otherwise resorts to watching Internet porn, and moping about his ex-girlfriend.
That’s not to say that Campos’ clinical style begets a bland aesthetic, though; from grungy apartments to humble coffee shops and the cloying neon of the local night-clubs and red light district, the director manages to give Paris a perfectly exotic allure in which it is believable that an alienated soul such as Simon could easily lose himself. With him having only a cursory grasp of the French language, a likely unhealthy taste for alcohol and a definitely unhealthy appetite for mischief, it’s safe to say that Paris is a volatile cocktail for the young man.
If a story about a hooker with a heart of gold might sound cliche, that’s the last thing Simon Killer actually is. From its inherently suggestive title to the unexpected twists and turns the narrative takes along that bent, Campos’ film is one that will keep viewers guessing, but more importantly, is one that will keep them intrigued.
Simon unlocks in Victoria a possibility of something beyond her unsavoury profession, and for Simon, Victoria represents an escape from his crushing angst, at least initially. Each has their own damage, and in one another, they briefly find reprieve, before the darker facets of this twisted romance unfurl.
In keeping with the surreptitious nature of the mystery, Campos refuses to play all of his hands right up until the film’s stingingly tense final scene. Even then, there’s much that’s down to interpretation; some audiences may infer that Simon is a compulsive liar from several comments he makes throughout the piece, while others will dismiss the notion outright.
Some might see the final seconds of screen time as robbing the film of much of its ambiguity, but like everything else in the film (and indeed, like the Campos-produced Martha Marcy Mar Marlene), its unreliable nature nevertheless leaves viewers with plenty to think about. Simon notes repeatedly throughout that his thesis subject was about the relationship between the eyes and the brain, an apt provocation that toys with the audience for the picture’s entirety.
Bringing its setting to life with lush cinematography and a pulsing synth soundtrack, Simon Killer is a devilishly understated examination of a heart of darkness generally left unchecked; a sexy, seductive portrayal of one young man’s downward spiral into existential Hell on the chilly Parisian streets.
Simon Killer is on limited release in the US from April 5th and in the UK on April 12th.