In 2011, the filmmaking collective known as Borderline Films took Sundance by the storm with Sean Durkin’s unsettling cult drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but their first major exposure began at Cannes with Antonio Campos’ 2008 “Afterschool.” The mysterious high school drama displayed the Borderline gang’s penchant for dark narratives, long takes, and a disquieting mood closer in tone to European art cinema than anything else happening in the U.S. scene. His sophomore feature, “Simon Killer,” continues along precisely the same path with far stronger results: With a dense, often impermeable style and a mentally unstable protagonist, “Simon Killer” is like watching the disturbed anti-hero of “Afterschool” all grown up.
The cryptic nature of “Afterschool” invited nearly as much derision as praise from audiences; the slow burn noir “Simon Killer” more clearly inhabits a single genre, making Campos’ pensive style easier to qualify without broadening its accessibility. Bleakly enigmatic about the motives of its psychotic protagonist, “Simon Killer” gets cozy with one man’s pathological rage.
A haunting Brady Corbet stars as the titular Simon, a young American college grad traveling Paris for no reason at all except to clear his head. An early scene reveals that Simon recently endured a harsh break-up, but his discussion with an old family friend about his academic background (his thesis explored the connection between the eye and the brain) suggests he’s a levelheaded guy simply looking for the opportunity to unplug. Simon looks sad and distant, but also sane. That’s the movie’s central coup. The reality is significantly gloomier.
Campos has said that he was partly inspired to create the character after reading about the murderous antics of Joran Van Der Sloot, who landed three decades in prison for killing a student in Peru. “Simon Killer” doesn’t attempt to explain those actions, but with its atmospheric immersion into Simon’s life, it does make a case for the way such madness can manifest itself.
After soaking in the details of Simon’s drab Parisian existence, a cycle of street-wandering and late night porn sessions, Campos reaches his inciting incident. When a pimp nabs the young man off the street and introduces him to an alluring young prostitute who calls herself Victoria (Mati Diop), Simon begins to reveal his crazy side.
For no obvious reason other than boredom and a desire to act out, Simon convinces Victoria–a low key woman with a damaged past on par with Simon’s–to blackmail her clients, a feat that has mixed results. The couple’s attraction initially seems like the solution to Simon’s isolation, with graphic sex scenes illuminating the cathartic nature of the bond for both of them. They almost make a cute pair, until they don’t.
His dazed expression growing increasingly dour, Simon gradually reveals his lunacy. Corbet’s performance makes that transition especially credible, shifting from introvert to neurotic headcase and finally outright dementia over the course of his downward slope.
In terms of precedents, “Simon Killer” begs comparison to “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” as both movies offer cerebral portraits of demented con artists. But its precise qualities beg for the subtitle “An American Psycho in Paris,” as the film bleakly explores the carefree nature of touristic indulgences. Campos keeps his distance from the character, leaving his entire motives up to debate with an ambiguous finale, but Simon’s descent into insanity cleverly forces a reevaluation of everything that came before. Just as Simon treats Paris as an escape vessel, Campos renders Simon’s reality in murky terms that foreground his instability.
Along with “Afterschool,” Campos’ second feature also features a stylistic connection to “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” All three films confront issues of control. “Afterschool” deals with the impact of media to sway our judgements; “Martha” reveals the way groupthink can tamp down on individuality. “Simon Killer” lumps that perspective into a single disturbed mind so convinced of its delusions that even we can’t see them until it’s too late. Together they form a frighteningly modern trilogy.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Bound to divide audiences, “Simon Killer” is likely to struggle in limited release when IFC Films releases it in theaters this weekend (especially since it faces competition from the much-hyped “Upstream Color”). But it may perform decently on digital platforms due to its genre qualities and some critical acclaim.