Smiley Face Killers (2020) Movie Review

Director Tim Hunter is perhaps best known for the crime drama River’s Edge starring Keanu Reeves. He has since directed the occasional feature, but most of his work is done on television programs. Fittingly, his Smiley Face Killers has the appearance of a teen drama show (like Riverdale or Scream: The TV Series, two shows Hunter has worked on).

I don’t say this disparagingly; it is simply an apparent feature. The young actors are lit and shot like they are models in an advertisement. Soft focus accentuates them in the frame. Soft, high key lighting highlights their features. At one point, a major character strips down and takes a shower, and the camera lingers on the water splashing onto his hair and back as if the film took a break to show a shampoo commercial.

Perhaps this put-on appearance of gloss suits the intent of the film. The screenwriter, best-selling novelist Bret Easton Ellis, is known for writing about thin veneers that conceal darker truths: clean-cut yuppie culture juxtaposed with serial killing in American Psycho, the carefree party culture of liberal arts education as a backdrop for vapid apathy in upper-middle class college youths in The Rules of Attraction, etc. So maybe the aesthetic of a CW teen soap opera meshes with the film’s overwrought depiction of contemporary young life.

The film’s protagonist is Jake Graham (Ronen Rubinstein), a stony jock with bottled-up emotions and a volatile relationship with the meds his psychiatrist prescribes him. He’s full of angst and repressed feelings that he consciously refuses to share with those who care about him. And there may or may not be a hooded killer stalking him in the hopes of carving him up and leaving his body on a beach in California.

Problem is, this last part is not really what the movie’s all about. At least, not entirely. One will likely be fooled by the film’s extended prologue, which takes its time illustrating three isolated instances of both animal and human slaughter before presenting title cards explaining how each year hundreds of college-aged males are found dead in “suspicious” instances of drowning. The camera cuts to a graffiti smiley face on a rock next to a cadaver, and then the title: Smiley Face Killers.

This movie is not about smiley face killers (that is, until it very much is). It is predominantly concerned with entitled college kids dealing with emotional issues and fraught relationships. Again, I’m not disparaging teen drama television. But the first 50 minutes of Smiley Face Killers is more or less that, and it is trying to convince you it’s something else.

I can see the impulse for Ellis to write a film like this. It fits his canon of maladjusted characters and extreme affect. But very little about Smiley Face Killers is a novelty. The concept of a character whose mental illness might be the root cause of these stalker attacks has been used time and time again for decades. Given that this is the main thrust of the horror angle to this drama, the whole premise reads thin.

And whatever satire Ellis might be approaching with this combination of melodrama and slasher doesn’t translate in the same way his novels often do. The film ends with a montage of characters being interviewed for a news story, which seems to be presenting a contrast between the image of American youth portrayed in media and the reality. This commentary, though, has little to do with the genre elements the film is selling itself on (and by and large failing to deliver on).

For what it’s worth, I think Rubinstein is very good in this role. He is compelling to watch even as the film stagnates in its underdeveloped web of relationship drama. And Crispin Glover is adequately menacing (and totally unrecognizable) in a brief role.

Smiley Face Killers: C-

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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