“I always saw myself as more of a lion,” says Simon (Brady Corbet) when asked about the fox pin his mother gave him as a child. One could argue that the symbolism here is a little on the nose, but by this point in Simon Killer it’s as clear a vision of the main character as we’ve gotten, and even then it’s still in line with the film’s central ambiguity. Writer-director Antonio Campos has done a strange thing with his movie’s ominously foreshadowing title, letting the threat of Simon’s violence settle from the start in the audience’s mind before toying continuously with whether it’s all just a clever red herring. In tone and plot, Simon Killer has many elements of a thriller, but ultimately Campos’s interest lies much more in profiling, yet never over-determining, his moody protagonist.
We meet Simon newly arrived in Paris after breaking up with his girlfriend of five years. A week in the city and a longer jaunt through Europe are supposed to get him over the heartbreak, but he leads a mostly lonely life until he meets Victoria (Mati Diop), a prostitute with whom pleasurable business soon turns to simply pleasure. Here Campos begins to twist the plot. Simon shows up bruised and bloody at Victoria’s work, saying he just got mugged and asking for a place to stay. Later, over wine and cocaine, he will casually suggest that they blackmail Victoria’s customers. But as the film seemingly turns toward a conventional tale of redeemed prostitutes and the get-rich-quick schemes that save them, a suspicion remains that Simon is more than a young man whose descent into depression got stopped in its tracks by a new love and the promise of a new life.
Campos casts the Paris streets in tones of blue and red, and in so doing coats the film with the two competing features of Simon’s personality: on the one hand his pitiable sadness and on the other his volatile insecurity, derived from a desire for manliness, womanizing prowess, and power that both physically and emotionally he’s incapable of completely fulfilling. Simon’s scheme with Victoria proves humorous in this respect: His first attempt at blackmail fails miserably when the planned victim reveals (or feigns) that he’s a cop and sends Simon running fear-stricken down the street. But even then, Campos never lets us settle into the thought that Simon is a harmless force who can be dismissed.
Simon Killer in many ways extends from Campos’s previous film, Afterschool. Visually it uses the same type of long shots and slow pans, though it makes them seem even chillier: The colors here are drabber and the camera, often set at waist level where it cuts characters off at the torso, is more emotionally detached. Simon, meanwhile, could be an older incarnation of Afterschool’s main character, a boarding school student who similarly fought depression and violent impulses and struggled to connect emotionally with his classmates. But Ezra Miller’s Rob, only a 10th grader, seemed confused and still capable of change in the earlier film. The twentysomething Simon, on the other hand, seems much more set in his ways and, what’s worse, perfectly capable of hiding his darker impulses.
That concealment is Simon Killer’s most disturbing touch: Corbet pulls off a tremendous performance, never letting Simon’s frail exterior and mannerisms recede even as the character’s increasingly manic behavior portends violent outbursts. Simon appears by turns like a guileless tourist or a manipulator who, with every person he meets, tries to bring a new self into creation. Yet the most troubling possibility in the spinning wheel of Simon’s identity is that he may be a man without motives, a bored recent grad and possible sociopath getting his kicks from the emotional dependence he can wrench from others. As Simon continues to connive throughout the film, it comes to seem both like a second instinct to him and a source of constant dissatisfaction. At that point we realize that not only shouldn’t we underestimate him, but we should outright fear this charming fox who desperately wishes he were a lion.