Writer-director Antonio Campos’ 2008 debut feature, Afterschool, was a deeply upsetting film, telling the story of an alienated boarding-school student so intimately that the viewer doesn’t immediately notice how psychologically damaged the kid is. Campos’ Simon Killer takes a similar approach, subjectivity-wise. The hero, played by Brady Corbet, is a recent college grad who takes a trip to Paris to recover from a recent break-up, and as he mopes around the city, trying and failing to meet people—and even having trouble masturbating without some difficulty—the movie asks for sympathy for this fumbling sad sack. Then Corbet develops an obsession with prostitute Mati Diop, and as he tries to come up with a way to afford to stay in Paris, he makes some disturbing choices, and Campos gradually edges the rug out from under the audience.
There’s nothing all that novel about a movie that asks people to feel compassion toward a protagonist who may be cracked. In fact, Campos did just that with Afterschool—and in a way that was more visually innovative than Simon Killer. (This movie relies too heavily on the back-of-the-head follow-shot, which has become an indie cliché.) But that doesn’t mean Simon Killer is devoid of formal interest. Corbet keeps noting that he majored in neuroscience—with an emphasis on the connection between the eye and brain—and Campos throws in the occasional strobe effect or piece of peripheral information to underscore the way this tourist sees a foreign city. Whether he’s walking across a glass floor, video-chatting via a laptop with spotty wifi, or becoming overwhelmed by the flash of Paris’ red-light district, Corbet’s world is nearly always askew.
Campos does just as much with the sound design, cranking up the volume whenever Corbet’s Simon is using loud noise to drive out the distractions in his head. And throughout the film, characters take notice of aromas, tastes, and textures. The sordidness of Simon Killer can feel like edge for its own sake, and it never really blossoms into a richer portrait of the human condition. What’s most effective about it is that, like the simmering thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene (whose director Sean Durkin co-produced this film), Simon Killer is a sensual experience that asks the audience to question what it sees and hears. In that way, Campos takes all-too-common feelings of loneliness and disorientation, and shows how they can shade into madness.