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Antisocial Studies

Simon Killer (2013)

Joe Anderson/IFC Films

We all know the major film studios have a habit of making serious and costly blunders when choosing film titles from time to time, often falling into the trap of needlessly prioritizing originality over suitability — "John Carter" and "The Adjustment Bureau" are two recent examples that come to mind. But are indie studios guilty of doing the opposite: jazzing up their titles in an attempt to grab a larger share of the market? Recent British releases "Monsters" and "Tyrannosaur" have been accused of misleading titles and/or marketing campaigns.

I couldn’t help feeling this was an issue with "Simon Killer," a film which I viewed almost completely cold, knowing next to nothing about its contents. The title conjures up the notion that it’s about an everyday man with whom the audience is comfortable enough to be on first-name terms, but who’s harboring a deadly homicidal intent — think of similarly titled films like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" or the lesser known "Tony." Without wanting to give any spoilers away, I can confirm that "Simon Killer" doesn’t fit into the same category as those films. As a result of these expectations, my viewing of the film was slightly skewed as I was constantly expecting worse from our titular character than he delivered, projecting my unconscious desires for a cacophony of onscreen carnage, no doubt.

Nevertheless, our Simon (Brady Corbet) is indeed a troubled enough character. A neurology graduate on a European vacation, Simon’s unassuming, almost shy demeanor comes across as relatively benign to begin with, but is soon revealed to conceal a worrisome and dangerous lack of empathy. Arriving in Paris to flat-sit for a distant family friend, Simon intermittently leaves messages on his ex-girlfriend’s voice mail which suggest that a nasty, possibly violent breakup prefigured his exile. He initially spends the days walking around a wintry Paris, half-heartedly chatting up girls and nearly getting into fights before a moment of weakness leads to a dalliance with a prostitute, Victoria (Mati Diop). Being the first person with whom he can converse relatively comfortably, Simon attaches himself to her. And by this stage, with his house-hitting stint at an end, Victoria unwisely becomes Simon’s only lifeline in a lonely city. As the couple’s mutual attraction develops, Simon hatches an awkward and ill-advised money-making scheme in the hoping of funding an extended stay and offering Victoria a modicum of redemption.

At this juncture in the story the film could have progressed into one of those tales about two unlikely losers thrust together in an us-against-the-world romance, like say, "Rust and Bone." But we’re given enough signals to suggest that Simon’s intentions are never wholly wholesome and that Victoria could well be dicing with danger.

Prospective viewers may also wonder if the film might set out to deromanticize and subvert the traditional American-in-Paris formula of films like "Midnight in Paris" or "Before Sunset." In fact the location is largely irrelevant to the plot and writer-director Antonio Campus has no intention of providing the kind of geo-cultural point-scoring seen in the likes of "Hostel." Refreshingly for an American indie and Sundance Film Festival favorite, "Simon Killer" is confident enough to present an entirely self-contained world that doesn’t feel the need to reference wider culture. In this way the film shares its timeless, detached quality with "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the previous release from the same team of near-interchangeable acting, writing and production talents.

Mr. Campos and cinematographer Joe Anderson film Simon’s travails in an interesting style. Most of the action takes place in confined hotel rooms or bars and they favor pans that track very slowly back and forth across the action. At the same time the camera is placed at an unusual mid-height to give an automated, CCTV-esque feeling, and the combination of these two highly stylized techniques brings to mind the heights of classical European art cinema, even if the closest resemblance is Sergio Armstrong’s more recent work on Pablo Larraín’s "Post Mortem."

As you’d expect from a hip young collective of filmmakers, the score is a standout, from the industrial ambiance of Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi’s score to the pumping refrains of the likes of LCD Soundsystem during the numerous dance-floor sequences.

Essentially the performances are the core of the film, though — or more precisely, Mr. Corbet’s performance is. Having mostly specialized in supporting roles up to now, he makes a convincing lead and a near-perfect Simon, somehow conveying the behind-the-eyes sadness of a wounded soul with his ruddy-cheeked, socially awkward moroseness.

Even without any title-inspired preconceptions, right from the start we’re never entirely sure just how far Simon will push things or to what depths he will descend. And equally we’re never given too many clues to the roots of his issues. We’re left to perform our own psychoanalytical conjectures based on the given evidence, much of which takes the form of sex scenes in which we voyeuristically watch Simon play out some slightly unusual but not necessarily unhealthy predilections.

The film doesn’t offer any easy explanations or deducible outcomes for Simon’s behavior; and I applaud the film for this and the fact that it doesn’t conform to expectations or to type. But by following such a distant and inscrutable protagonist in such an objective fashion, with no traditional concluding moral or indication as to the full of extremes of his capabilities, the film may be an unsatisfying and unsettling experience for some viewers.

However, on the whole it’s a subtle and compelling character study that adds a further string to the bow of this very promising filmmaking outfit.


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