"The meek shall inherit the Earth," somebody said once — probably Truffaut. Two pictures into his thrilling career, writer-director Antonio Campos seems determined to show us that might not be anything to celebrate. Campos's feature debut, 2008's Afterschool, was essentially one part Blow Up to three parts Rushmore-as-psychological-horror-flick. While it took us (okay, me) a few minutes to sync with his patient, clinical approach to story-building, Campos's control, of both frame and narrative, never felt less than total. The tale of a slight, awkward ninth-grader at an exclusive boarding school trying to square his vastly mediated experience of death and sex with brief exposures to the real, sticky things, Afterschool subverted expectations you hadn't even noticed it was setting up.
The worst that can be said of Campos's follow-up, Simon Killer, is that it does more or less the same thing, only in Paris. (It's like Rush Hour 3 in that way.) Blond, scruffy Brady Corbet is the Angry Young Man this time around, stepping in for Afterschool's smooth-cheeked Ezra Miller. Simon Killer was made about four years post-Afterschool; its American protagonist is a recent college grad. If it starred Miller instead of Corbet you might reasonably infer it to be Afterschool's sequel. In any case, Campos tips his hand with that title. Simon Ladykiller would've left him more room to maneuver, non?
Simon is, after all, uncannily good at making women trust him — almost as good as Corbet, with his haunted, vacant eyes, is at making us distrust Simon, even when he isn't doing anything remotely suspicious. Asking pretty girls for a light in broken, apologetic French, Simon seems nonthreatening, even needy. He's come to Paris to forget the long-term girlfriend who recently left him, as he explains to a Parisian family friend for whom he'll be house-sitting. Voiceovers of Simon's unanswered emails to his ex rub up against scenes of him jerking off while holding his laptop in the other hand. (AppleCare does not cover that!)
Starring Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Michael Abiteboul, Constance Rousseau, and Solo. Written and directed by Antonio Campos. 101 minutes. Not rated.
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But Simon isn't immediately successful as a pickup artist, and one night he allows himself to be coaxed into a brothel. If you believe that either Simon or Victoria (Mati Diop), his chosen escort, are going to respect the limited, transactional boundaries of the hooker-john relationship, then you have never seen a movie before. After their first, abbreviated encounter, Simon returns and forces Victoria to see him as a person via the oldest trick in le livre: getting her to dress his wounds following a street scuffle that may not actually have occurred. Soon he's crashing at her place; naturally he requires no time at all to come up with a risky plan that'll allow her to stop turning tricks.
If Simon Killer's tragic drift is predictable, the seedy particulars still engross. And the storytelling is first-rate: Campos employs harsh audio cuts to put us inside Simon's mind, though what he shows us is often the backs of heads, sitting at computers or bobbing along the streets. In Campos's unblinking, faraway eye, a close-up of someone's face might be too, well, on the nose. One thing actually is: Simon likes to tell people he wrote a thesis about peripheral vision and the link between eye and brain. ("It's boring! It was published, actually.") Campos insists on underlining this by every so often flooding the screen with flickering, potentially seizure-inducing washes of red, blue, or violet. Is he trying to recall the vista of rain-streaked neon that played across the windshield of Travis Bickle's taxicab? That guy was just trying to impress a girl, too.
More often, Campos's ratio of sensualism to minimalism is dead-on. He'll hold a shot of Simon dancing in a nightclub for ages — no worries, that LCD Soundsystem song is great — but strip plot-advancing scenes of blackmail and violence to their raw essentials. One of his favorite tricks is to pan slowly between two participants in a conversation, keeping one party (and often both) out of view. Monologues necessarily carry more weight in this distracted universe of mostly disembodied voices. When Victoria tells Simon about her abusive ex-husband, she seems to intuit that the guy who shares her bed now will prove himself to be no better. Diop's performance as Victoria has a sadness that feels as vivid as Simon's rage. (Corbet and Diop both share "story by" credit with Campos.) Solo, too, has a memorable interlude as a victim in Simon and Victoria's scheme.
Campos has made another hypnotic, nuanced thriller. The challenge for him now will be to give us a picture this good that doesn't rely on a shocking, late revelation about its central character to seal the deal. There was a time, not so many years ago, when M. Night Shyamalan looked like a genius for a couple of films, too.