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.
This review continues on my website.