A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE (2019)
Directed by Staten Cousins-Roe
A while back, someone I knew in London set himself up as a life coach. For anyone who hasn’t heard this term, they’re guides for people who are confused about their place in this mortal coil and aim to teach them how to live properly – think Tony Robbins, but they’ll speak to you in person. From what I’ve gathered, he works very hard to enrich clients his lives and helps them some sense of the world. Still, it’s tough not to be cynical when I read some of his mantras about seizing the day, finding the inner person and being more yourself by being like him. A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, a dark comedy by Staten Cousins-Roe, is an antidote to this kind of bullshit, following two women on a morbid road-trip to improvement and Hell. Think Thelma and Louise with a dash of Dexter.
The first of these women is Lou (Brayben): a quiet, reserved, thirty-something self-help addict in a dead-end beach town where nobody respects her, who still lives with her passive-aggressive mother. Tomorrow is always when things will change, and she finds her escape by dreaming of a better life while listening to the tips of numerous self-help gurus; her favourite being a guy called Chuck Knoah. Then, after a particularly uninspiring talk about unlocking her true potential, she meets the no-shit, and super assertive, Val (Roe): an aspiring life-coach who wants to try out some different alternative therapies. In many ways the pair are opposites, and their journey around rural England trying out different therapies has a familiar odd-couple/ buddy dynamic to it. Over time they begin to rub off on each other a little, and Lou realises her stronger, louder and more confident friend is who wants to be. But little does Lou know she’s literally killing the opposition to get ahead.
Between pressing their palms against trees, or chanting in a circle, Val racks up quite a body count including well-meaning weirdos and some cynical fraudsters. Despite the many corpses, there’s very little on-screen violence: something I suspect was a budget choice rather than a stylistic one. Not that it’d necessarily benefit from more gore, given the film needs us to still feel something for its duo rather than fear them. Instead, much of its nastiness comes from the gallows humour and the often flippant ways that they deal with death. It’s often laugh out loud funny. Importantly, there’s an understated but very genuine bond between the two characters, and the scenes of only the two of them in the car are often a joy to watch. It also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, since neither woman gets remotely defined by her relationship to a man – the only named guys are on their hit-list. Both leads are really good too, with Baryben being particularly impressive – even when she’s complicit in the killings, she’s clearly out of her depth. So there’s something quite charming about her finding a voice.
Unfortunately, as per some of the therapeutic techniques in this film’s sights, the script is fairly shallow and never quite amounts to saying anything particularly profound. Violence has been a vehicle for self-discovery, for characters who have been constantly pushed around, many times over. Most recently we saw that in this year’s Joker. As such, even if the specific targets are fresh, the underlying philosophy and themes are not. Potentially, this issue could be offset by spectacle and thrills, although the low budget means we do not get a sense of urgency or dramatic stakes even in the third act. The only signs anybody even knows about the women’s spree comes from voices on the radio or a siren in the background. So instead, the character-work has to carry a lot of the weight. And as good company as Lou and Val are they can’t quite do it. Val is written broadly, with the audience kept at a distance from her the whole time – she may even be interpreted as a Tyler Durden, or Mr Hyde style alter-ego if one wants. Without a more nuanced approach, then the movie sometimes watches less like a story than it does a series of (admittedly amusing) sketches with recurring characters. Still, a good way to unwind and way cheaper than seeing someone.
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life screened at Grimmfest, 2019. It will be released by Arrow Video in early 2020.