SUNDANCE: Simon Killer Polarizes, But Maybe That’s a Good Thing

The most polarizing films are often those that dare to push the envelope farther than is expected or comfortable, whether audiences are ready for them or not, and for this reason I tend to find the divisive films more interesting than those with universal praise or derision. Simon Killer, from Afterschool director/Martha Marcy May Marlene producer Antonio Campos, reminded me of this rule when it debuted Friday at Sundance and left critics and bloggers somewhat split.

Simon Killer marks the return of Borderline Films partners Campos, Sean Durkin, and Josh Mond to Sundance after debuting their Martha Marcy May Marlene last year (which was directed by Durkin), and like MMMM it focuses on a seemingly lost young twentysomething searching for their identity and place in the world while said world grows increasingly sinister. Here, however, that creeping menace doesn’t come from an outside threat but rather from within protagonist Simon (Brady Corbet), a recent college grad who’s drifted to Paris after a bad break-up. Taking up with a local prostitute (Mati Diop), Simon insinuates himself into her life driven by loneliness and longing, but piece by piece the portrait he paints of himself, to her and to the audience, starts to feel jarringly and disturbingly false.

Campos presents his sophomore feature as an exercise in perception cued by Simon’s intellectual fascination, as he describes to pretty strangers and acquaintances alike, with the way the eye and the brain interact. Seeing is believing, but it’s not necessarily knowing; is this a young man nursing heartbreak in completely normal human ways -- or a sociopath in the making? Campos employs a striking visual flair and bold use of sound and music, cleverly using diegetic sound, voice-over, and strobing effects to evoke Simon’s internal experience to allow us to tap into Simon’s psyche, bit by bit.

The problem is that by the film’s midpoint Simon is so unlikeable and so morally detestable that you find yourself wondering why it is you should root for this miserable little slug, or care what happens to him, or, perhaps, even stay to the end. But the end is where Campos brings it all back together and leaves us to ponder the new picture we have of our protagonist, an unreliable narrator minus the narration. You’re not supposed to like Simon, or root for him, or care if a happy fate befalls him; he is, potentially, a monster in the making -- possibly even one damn well fully formed -- and Simon Killer only seeks to explore what he is and how he operates, how he, or someone like him, could operate in the world around us without giving off the slightest of clues to his true nature.

[Campos, after the film’s premiere, offered a chilling bit of explanation: He was inspired by the case of Joran van der Sloot, the Dutch man suspected in the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway who was convicted of murdering a woman five years later in Peru.]

While I’m on the subject of polarizing Sundance 2012 films, I also caught Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, a comedy feature spin-off of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s cult series which is itself a pretty “take it or leave it” kind of property. More on that and its critical reception here in Park City, to come.

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