Antonio Campos' Simon Killer embarks on an inexorable journey toward its titular outcome, and the closer it gets, the worse it becomes. As a portrait of alienation and dislocation — its protagonist a free man in Paris, but far from unfettered and alive — the film is frequently masterful, suggesting the turbulent inner state of an American sociopath who believes himself to be a good guy.
But its slow creep toward an inevitable action takes the film away from the mystery of a disturbed man coming to terms with the past and into relationships that follow a predictable path. It's unsurprising, and will seem even more so to anyone who saw Campos' superb 2008 debut Afterschool, which exploited similar young-male psychoses to far richer effect.
After a brilliant opening sequence establishes Paris through the jaundiced eye of a foreigner who never gets oriented, Campos gives his titular antihero (Brady Corbet) a chance to open up a little about Michelle, an unseen woman who has broken his heart. The formality of the scene makes it seem like Simon is talking to a psychiatrist, but his confessor is a near-total stranger, a distant family connection who's lending his flat to Simon for a week while he's away. Simon's words paint a picture, but Campos' rigorous framing cleaves the space between the two, isolating him from the person to whom he's so desperately wanting to connect.
Simon's loneliness intensifies during his long nights in the apartment, where even his attempts to masturbate prove pathetically futile, until he makes an effort to go out on the town. He's persistent, and reasonably conversant in French — enough to charm a phone number out of Sophie (Lila Salet), an attractive young Parisian — but the night ultimately leads him to a sex club.
There, he partners with Victoria (Mati Diop of 35 Shots of Rum), a prostitute who treats him kindly enough that he believes he's more special than her other clients. Simon resorts to drastic measures to convince Victoria to take him to her apartment, and they start a real relationship, but his terrible hangups, combined with a renewed interest in "good girl" Sophie, cause serious problems.
The best-observed relationship in Simon Killer, though, is the one between Simon and that unseen ex-girlfriend. Campos remains teasingly vague about the dark circumstances that led to their breakup, though we hear via voiceover the emails and voicemails Simon leaves for her — always with the proviso that he knows they agreed not to contact each other. A conventional thriller would cast him as a supporting character, the creep with the restraining order out on him, but based on this and Afterschool, Campos holds a keen interest in understanding such a volatile mind.
The early scenes with Victoria, too, are authentically complicated as they wrestle with the hooker-john arrangement and how it might plausibly evolve into real intimacy. But once Simon ropes Victoria into a foolish scheme to shake down her wealthy, married clients for money, Simon Killer starts to go off the rails; it doesn't find its way back entirely until the coda.
The trouble is that Simon starts to feel like a stock character, another variation on the "God's Lonely Man" type proposed by Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. His narrow categorization of Sophie and Victoria as virgin and whore, respectively, feels like part of a too-predictable rubric, as does his mounting desire to unleash the dark impulses long simmering inside him.
Campos handles Simon's meltdown with exquisite restraint and control — there's hardly a single uninteresting shot in the whole film — but it's an artful circling of an awfully familiar drain.