‘Simon Killer’ disturbing and intriguing

Dark are the workings behind the amiable visage of the central character of “Simon Killer,” an amoral psychodrama about an American in Paris and his unsavory unraveling.

Credit character-focused direction, a stirring lead performance and an efficient use of style for making a potentially off-putting film compelling.

Writer-director Antonio Campos, who directed the disturbed-teen drama “Afterschool” and produced the cult-escapee story “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” also displays an interest in disaffected and disturbed souls this time around.

The setting is a sometimes-seedy Paris, the tone is neo-noir and the protagonist suggests a blend of Tom Ripley, Travis Bickle, Benjamin Braddock and Brandon from “Shame.”

Simon (Brady Corbet) is a casual-looking New Yorker and recent college neuroscience grad visiting Paris to recover from a bad breakup. He begins house-sitting for an acquaintance and initially comes across as a typical tourist and clunky American as he visits museums and tries in vain to pick up French girls.

Enticed into a sex parlor in the Pigalle quarter, he meets a young prostitute named Victoria (Mati Diop). The two soon become real-life partners.

After some brief brightness, the relationship experiences the ugly side of Simon. Developments include a scheme he hatches to secretly videotape Victoria’s wealthy married johns and blackmail them.

The story offers few surprises as Simon lies, cheats and becomes scary, obsessively and aggressively losing his grip. But several factors inspire viewers to stick with the emerging sociopath.

First is Campos’ initial focus on Simon’s humanity. As that quality recedes, we feel for its loss.

Campos’ stylistic ingredients — saturated colors, a stalking camera, upbeat indie-rock tunes contrasted with an ominous score — enhance rather than distract as Simon’s unhinging advances. And voiceovers reveal disturbing aspects of Simon’s previous relationship.

Brave performances by Corbet and Diop (both receive a story credit as well) give credibility and resonance to their characters’ troubled relationship.

Corbet, whose credits include Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” is particularly strong. While he doesn’t quite convey the charm that purportedly allows Simon to win women over with his (probably fabricated) sob stories, he superbly portrays Simon’s emotional tailspin. As his dark aspects surface and usurp his brighter qualities, he captivates.

Although the film isn’t quite the knockout little psychothriller that early scenes hint at, it is 115 minutes of worthy cinema for grown-ups, and Campos and Corbet are rising stars to watch.

REVIEW: Simon Killer 3 stars

  • Starring Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau
  • Written and directed by Antonio Campos
  • Not rated
  • Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes
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