When we first meet Simon, he's not unlike a lot of twentysomething guys you knew after college. Recently graduated, cash-strapped, withdrawn and sorta lost, the lead of Simon Killer finds himself crashing in Paris at a family friend's place, wanting to escape New York and the girlfriend, Michelle, who dumped him after five years. The guy's such a heartsick lump that you feel bad for him, even when he refers to his ex as a whore. But as we'll soon realize, Simon is something of a mystery, which makes it so perfect that he's played by Brady Corbet, an actor who you've seen in a lot of different things but probably don't recognize. After Simon Killer, you'll know who he is.
This dark character study, which opens on Friday in New York and will be available on-demand next Friday, is something of a coming-out party for Corbet, who has appeared in Melancholia, Mysterious Skin,the American remake of Funny Games, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, a movie from the same filmmaking collective, called Borderline Films, that was behind Simon Killer. (If you haven't seen any of those indies, you may recognize Corbet as Derek Huxley from the fifth season of 24.) He's a handsome, boyish guy–he'll be 25 in August–but even when he's smiling there's something about his eyes that seems troubled. You can tell that he's thinking, but you're not sure what he's thinking. And maybe you don't want to know.
That specific quality of being appealing but also somewhat inscrutable is incredibly important to what Corbet brings to Simon Killer, which is all about having an audience live with a character we trust less and less as the story moves along. Directed by Antonio Campos (Afterschool), Simon Killer can be seen as a worst-case scenario of two romantic fantasies: living in Paris and leaving all your troubles behind to reinvent yourself in a new land. This film perverts all that for a subdued, intense drama in which Simon attempts to get over his ex, occasionally writing her emails that try to find the right tone–does he close with "Sincerely" or "Love"?–when he's not masturbating to online porn. Eventually, he wanders into a sex club, where he befriends a prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop). They start to form a relationship that's based on, really, nothing: He's nice to her, and she takes care of him, sensing that he can barely take care of himself. (Long ago, Simon figured out that he can use his puppy-dog eyes to get people to feel sorry for him.) Soon after, he gets the idea that she should blackmail her clients for big money, threatening to tell their wives about their infidelity if they don't pay up.
Simon Killer has a plot, but it rambles along from sequence to sequence, driven by Simon's unpredictable whims. As we come to understand, he may act like a sad-sack, but he's also hiding darker impulses, which cause us to question everything we see him say or do. At its core, the film is a puzzle, daring us to figure out who Simon was before he arrived in Paris and which parts of his past are real or invented. Corbet is playing a variation on the unreliable narrator–the only actual voiceover narration comes from his occasional emails to Michelle or his mom–and since everything we learn about Simon is from his perspective, the actor's blank, vaguely threatening gaze gets increasingly more unsettling. (We cling to his seeming sweetness, even though we see more and more evidence that it's a sham.) A potential love interest in Simon Killer tells him that she doesn't like how he stares at her. You'll share that feeling soon enough.
Campos has made a film that's the opposite of warm and fuzzy. Besides its sexual frankness, Simon Killer features brief experimental light-and-sound interludes (meant, presumably, to echo the main character's uneven moods) and a dispassionate, downright chilly attitude toward Simon's questionable behavior. Simon Killer isn't set in the same City of Light as depicted in Midnight in Paris: It's a place of desperate loners and very little magic.The film also doesn't ask you to love Simon; at most, it wants you to fully appreciate his cruel, pathetic nature. Indeed, Simon Killer isn't the kind of film that will appeal to audiences who prefer their main characters to be "likable." Rather, it asks us to study this screwed-up enigma, who can't seem to get out of the way of his own self-destructive tendencies.
I don't know what a psychologist would make of Simon, but in the confines of a movie, he's terribly compelling precisely because his every action is justified (in his mind) as a response to Michelle's breakup. It's very possible he's a psychopath, but Corbet plays him so quietly that, if you weren't paying attention, you might think he's just fine. Sure, Simon is a liar and a schemer, but Corbet keeps him oddly sympathetic. Like Matt Damon's characters in The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Informant!, Simon is arresting because he doesn't think there's anything wrong with him. He's just misunderstood is all. And Corbet never signals to us that he knows this guy is deeply disturbed. Quite the contrary, there's this commitment to respecting Simon's point of view–whether through Corbet's performance or the movie in general–that makes Simon Killer all the more riveting.
We're used to our cinematic villains being easily recognizable, sometimes over-the-top creations, often with simple back stories that explain their motivations. Simon Killer offers no such relief: The quiet kid fretting over his broken heart turns out to be the bad guy. And the greatness of Corbet's performance is that, even at the end, I never was sure who Simon really was and how he got that way. You keep watching this movie because you're fascinated to figure it out, and because you're concerned about what he might do next. Often, a breakout performance is one in which the actor pulls out all the stops in a grandiose way. In Simon Killer, Corbet does the opposite. He reveals nothing–and that absence of emotion and clear clues into a character's mindset becomes hypnotic. I can't wait to see what he does next.
Grierson & Leitch write regularly for Deadspin about movies. Follow them @griersonleitch.