‘Simon Killer’: Sub-surface creepiness

April 1, 2013

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I will admit that, when it screened at the New York Film Festival a few years ago, I walked out of Antonio Campos’ “Afterschool” after about 30 minutes. And it colored my willingness to see his newest film, “Simon Killer,” opening Friday in limited release.

But “Simon Killer” surprised me. Like his producing partner Sean Durkin’s film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” this is a film that challenges the audience to plug into the story and stick with it. But if you do, it pays off with a portrait of a manipulative, dark character, one who continually surprises the viewer with his choices – much like Campos’ film.

The central character is, in fact, named Simon and he’s played by Brady Corbet, a baby-faced young actor who looks like he could be farm-fresh, so dewy and innocent is his look. He’s first seen sleeping in a taxi in Paris, then chatting with a slightly older Frenchman. The Frenchman is a friend of Simon’s mother, who is about to leave town and has given Simon the use of his Paris apartment.

Simon apparently is taking some time off after college, where he studied the connection between the brain and the eye. He has just come out of a relationship, whose ending apparently left him bereft.

So he wanders the streets of Paris, at one point striking up a conversation with two young French women. One night, he lets himself be guided into a strip bar, where the girls offer sexual favors on the side. Before long, he’s become involved with the first girl he meets there, Victoria (Mati Diop, who cowrote with Campos and Corbet). She left an abusive marriage in the suburbs and now makes money from her “clients,” who she sees outside of work.

Then one night he shows up at her doorstep, with a tale of being attacked in the street. He cajoles her into letting him stay with her. But the viewer already knows there’s something hinky about Simon because we’ve seen him all but provoke that street altercation. We intuit that, if he wanted, he could still be staying in the apartment of his mother’s friend.

We also see the difference between what he’s writing in upbeat and apologetic emails to his ex-girlfriend and telling his concerned parents in phone calls and what he’s actually doing. He looks innocent, but he’s also suggesting that Victoria blackmail her married clients for money to live on – and then starts blackmailing them himself.

In shards of story, Campos lets us see the disconnect between who Simon looks like or represents himself as and who he really is. Though he has moments in which he breaks down and cries (by himself), he also puts up a blithe front for the people he meets, particularly the women – the lost boy they can help rescue, right up to the point that he victimizes them.

It’s dark stuff, linear without having much of a plot. Eventually we get the picture: Simon is a sociopath, a likable and inviting one who eventually reveals just how little he thinks or cares about the other people he meets.

Campos’ camera is purposely restless, usually trailing behind Simon as he wanders the streets. Campos frames his shots in a slightly off-kilter way, cutting off heads while scenes play out, until the characters sit down. There is a fly-on-the-wall quality to the scenes that’s almost voyeuristic. It creates a sense of floating dread that builds as the film goes on.

Does it pay off? That depends on your point of view. For me, “Simon Killer” was both gripping and unsettling. That’s not a feeling that most moviegoers seek – but you have to credit Campos with making a film that will leave you convinced you’ve never seen a film like it. Nor are you likely to.

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