Director: Antonio Campos
Stars: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop
3 out of 5 globes
Title warning aside, Simon, the American in Paris played by Brady Corbet (“Funny Games,” “Melancholia”), seems like a nice kid. Reeling from a breakup, he strolls the streets of a foreign land with music piped into his ears. What little human contact he makes is awkward, so much so that he gets bullied into entering a sex shop in the red light district, where he’s too polite to turn down a handie from a prostitute (Mati Diop, “35 Shots of Rum").
If he seems harmless, the sinister mood, sometimes punctuated by strobe light interludes, tells us otherwise. The rest of the film methodically charts Simon as he gains the upper hand, so to speak. First, Simon, allegedly homeless after being mugged, worms his way into her tiny apartment, then embroils her in a blackmail plot against her clients. This inevitably gets out of hand, as half-assed blackmail plots are wont to do, and it’s not long before Simon…nearly shows his true face.
Director Antonio Campos previously made “Afterschool,” a clinical, superficially Antonio-esque study of a boarding school kid trying to make sense of senseless tragedy through new media. There are less heavy things on “Simon Killer”’s mind, but it scans best as a creeping study of modern male psychology. Simon may not be a killer, but his “nice guy” persona serves as a mask to obscure his self-serving and monstrous nature. Campos has cited gutter noirs by Georges Simenon and Jim Thompson as influences, where casually amoral leads don’t understand their true nature as they embrace it. But equally important are “Vertigo” and “Rear Window,” Alfred Hitchcock’s disturbingly revelatory portraits of sensitive men who put women through the wringer.
Campos and Corbet (who co-wrote) go a lot further than Hitchcock did into depravity, if not always insight. The more “Simon Killer” suggests Simon is even worse than he appears, the smaller it feels. Still, the way the film gradually reveals its (and Simon’s) true nature is more satisfying than its destination, but satisfying nonetheless. And while Corbet’s performance is magnificently cagey, suggesting dark undercurrents while never being less than absurdly mousy, Diop one-ups him. She bounces back and forth between a cold intelligence and a vulnerable gullibility, suggesting that, like Simon, she acts even when not aware of it. Their performances, and the film often, too, put a damper on what could be mere chic nihilism.