SMILEY FACE KILLERS (2020)
Directed by Tim Hunter
Some brutal images of animal violence open up Bret Easton Ellis’ SMILEY FACE KILLERS, a film inspired by the theory of serial killers being responsible for the ‘drowning’ deaths of young college-age men across the US, where spray-painted smiley faces have been spotted at the scenes where the bodies were discovered.
My first encounter with the Smiley Face murders theory was through a workmate who follows true crime and I started to do some reading about the theory by a NYC detective. Is it right? Is it wrong? Who knows, but the idea that there might be someone responsible for the deaths of these poor guys was something worth considering. So when this film popped onto my radar, I wondered if it may approach this idea in a rather intelligent way to put the pieces together to question the viewer but instead it resorts to a plain nasty slasher affair with kooky cult followers and a heavily-made up Crispin Glover torturing some poor naked young man in the back of a van. If anything, it just exploits the true crime status and makes it into some weird joke when it could have achieved something more thought provoking, a la The Conspiracy.
Ronen Rubenstein is the shining light of this movie and carries almost the entire film on his shoulders as lead character, Jake. He’s a college student, likes to play football and has an attractive girlfriend. Life seems good for Jake, but we discover he has a history of mental health struggles and has recently stopped taking his medication. When he finds a map emblazoned with smiley face sketches on his bed and starts to receive strange text messages on his phone about ‘the water calling’ him, Jake’s vocal concerns are met with accusations from his girlfriend of him having an ‘episode’. The further he protests he’s telling the truth, the more she makes out he’s crazy and has relapsed into a fragile state of mind. It doesn’t help matters when Jake discovers her ex-boyfriend has started sniffing about and sending her text messages, clearly trying to woo her back.
Though clearly a likeable guy, Jake often finds himself on his own, brooding about his life but also about the harassment he keeps receiving by the mystery contact. It seems he hasn’t noticed the white van stalking him around the town but that is something that the viewer is acutely aware of as it teases about who or what is inside the van and their plans for Jake. When the mystery stalker is revealed, it’s a grisly little episode that, apart from the opening scene, is the film’s first foray into blood-shedding but the viewer is none the wiser as to why Jake has been selected other than him being a bit of a troubled young man. My interpretation of the real case is that the victims would have been spied on and snatched on the day of their disappearance, however, in this film, it opts to play with the victim over a period of time, as a cat would a mouse, to make the victim feel as though they’re going insane and pushing themselves further from everyone they hold dear. I thought that the killer crew would capitalise more on this but instead it’s just a bit of foreplay before the sloppy tools of the trade are reached for as it slips into the generic slasher fare.
SMILEY FACE KILLERS maintains a slow pace until things ramp up in the final quarter of the film but, by this point, it’s hard to actually be bothered about anything what’s going on. The result feels ill-organised and daft, considering these are meant to be serial killers who’ve managed to evade suspicion by the authorities until this point. It’s hard to imagine this is an organised outfit with the sloppy reaction of the killers when confronted with witnesses or indeed trying to restrain their victim. The horrific drama which plays out would undoubtedly be recorded by CCTV cameras, not to mention that certain clues would give reason to believe that this is murder rather than suicide, from wounds on the body to a bicycle abandoned on the street. None of it adds up which just ruins whatever tension has been built up so far in the film. The only real reason to continue to watch the movie is the performance by Rubenstein in which he shines despite given very little to do. His friends, and I use that term lightly, just seem pointless additions to serve the narrative, and the character of Jake seems to be easily disposable to them. It all feels a little cringeworthy, even for a slasher, with multiple unrealistic scenes, in particular a news report at the end of the movie which has Jake’s girlfriend and friends voice their opinion on him – and not in a very good light, might I add. You just think on what planet would the news air something like that. It all smacks of poor ideas and an inferior execution of what could have been an interesting film that legitimised the theory of the real-life deaths.
If you want to find out more about the true Smiley Face murders theory, check out the Smiley Face Killers: The Hunt for Justice series on Oxygen instead. If anything, at least this movie may cause others to look into the real-life case that the film is inspired by.