That’s right, indie darlings Brady Corbet and Antonio Campos, I’m talking to you. I get it, you want to plumb the depths of the male human psyche by staging uncompromising displays of graphic sex and brooding introspection in your new movie, the fitfully engrossing but ultimately just plain maddening character study Simon Killer.
It’s understandable, Brady, why you want to take the plunge into these murky waters for your first big starring role. Throughout your career you’ve been standing in the wings, often playing second fiddle to your movies’ real protagonists. In Mysterious Skin, you were terrific as the bespectacled loner with a doozy of a childhood-derived skeleton in your closet. But that film also happened to feature Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s breakthrough role as the gay hustler who shared the same inner demons. Look at you go opposite Michael Pitt as the white-gloved stranger who terrorizes an impossibly bourgeois nuclear family in Michael Haneke’s American Funny Games remake. Pitt got most of the attention, didn’t he?
You might not have typical matinee-idol looks (or height), but there’s a magnetism about you that commands viewers’ attention regardless. You also have a knack for teaming up with edgy, demanding filmmakers, iconoclasts with a knack for pushing people’s buttons. You joined Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer-director Sean Durkin turned you into a member of a creepy cult capable of committing unspeakable acts. Now you have teamed up with Antonio Campos, the incredibly gifted director of the little-seen tour de force Afterschool, which put fellow nonconformist Ezra Miller on the map. On the page, it was a match made in indie movie heaven, the story of Simon (Corbet), a recently dumped college graduate who flees to Paris in order to lick his wounds by staying at an acquaintance’s apartment. Shortly before he’s supposed to leave the City of Lights, he meets “Victoria” (Mati Diop), a kind-hearted prostitute with a bad track record in the relationship department, and they embark on a tumultuous love affair.
Hovering like a dark cloud over Simon Killer is the possibility that this shy, brainy nerd is grappling with an impulse to kill, Dexter-style. It’s an intriguing conceit at first, to be sure, but Antonio, dear, you have to let us into your main character’s mind at some point. Alas, even though Simon sheds his clothes as he and Marianne jump into bed time and time again, he stubbornly refuses to give us a peek behind that stainless steel wall he’s built around himself. As a result, what should have been a profound, layered portrait of a young man who may or may not be struggling with lethal urges remains diffuse and hollow. When Simon comes close to revealing his true colors, he’s just a douchebag with a wandering eye and a short temper, and I know you guys were aiming higher than that. (Corbet shares a story credit with Campos and Diop.)
Antonio, your penchant for composition and stylistic risk-taking is on full display here, but did it ever cross your mind your movie might have been better served by dropping the coy is-he-or-isn’t-he routine? I would have much preferred Simon Killer to be closer in spirit to Richard Linklater’s Before movies – only racier – but if you were planning to go the full Tom Ripley, why not just come clean with the viewers early on? As it stands, seeing Simon Killer amounts to joining some hip friends on a shopping spree who are off sharing a secret joke while we’re off to the side, patiently holding their bags.
Nobody’s questioning your integrity or street cred, Brady. Hell, you even showed up at this year’s Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) to host a screening of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. Next time you’re picking a starring project, though, I expect you to take on the biggest challenge of them all: playing a well-adjusted person. No more two-timing cads, murderous sociopaths, or damaged goods. Turn the page already on this mentally unstable groove you’re on. Pretty please?
Campos and Corbet aren’t the only well-intentioned filmmakers who can’t quite manage to get beneath the surface of their subjects this week. In a forehead-slapping case of how-do-you-screw-this-up nonfiction cinema, Venus and Serena hits the court to chronicle a year in the lives of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams, a time filled with setbacks and crises. Juicy stuff for a sports documentary, enough to merit a Closing Night gala slot at MIFF this year. So why is the end result so ordinary?
The Magnolia Pictures release is at its strongest when chronicling the sisters’ rise to prominence, two driven African American girls from Compton transplanted to West Palm Beach, forging ahead in a boys’ club field. Their father Richard’s grueling training is the stuff of grade-A underdog-athlete movies. Their crossover appeal, which eventually turned them into fashionistas with a strong couture presence, is amply addressed. Directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major even include an interview with Anna Wintour in addition to the expected talking heads (Billie Jean King, John McEnroe). Chris Rock makes the more pointed observations here, revealing how he relates so much with them because these were black athletes that refused to assimilate into Anglo culture.
But when you want Venus and Serena to be more forthcoming about the siblings’ personal lives, Baird and Major lose their nerve. There’s only a passing mention of their Jehovah’s Witnesses upbringing, and the depiction of their romantic lives feels like it was approved by their publicist. And that’s what this lightweight doc feels like: an overeager puff piece that’s watchable enough but ultimately fails to go the distance. Baird and Major have made a polished, reasonably engaging missed opportunity.
Venus and Serena starts Thursday at O Cinema Miami Shores (o-cinema.org). The next day, Simon Killer begins a limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) and Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com).