A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life…
Self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry with countless books on Amazon, in the aisles of whatever book stores are left standing, and on dusty shelves in thrift stores across America, just waiting to be snatched up by someone who needs a little more confidence or happiness in their life. The popularity of the self-help industry is ironic considering it is also one of the most ridiculed, debunked, and vilified genres around. As is true with everything in our society, what’s toxic to some is life changing and saving to others. This dichotomy is the taken to the extreme in writer/director Staten Cousins Roe’s debut film A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, an off-beat film with a significant streak of black humor that simultaneously satirizes the self-help industry and its leaders and underscores the struggles of its customers.
The film opens with a brief introduction from Chuck Knoah (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), a suit with a smile who tells us that the true path of happiness is to read his book and be like him. “Be me, then be yourself,” he says before the titles scream on screen. We’re then introduced to Lou (Katie Brayben), a socially awkward self-help addict living in the suburbs of Britain who wishes she could shed her gentle, timid disposition as well as her responsibilities to her domineering and unstable mother. Lou sees her opportunity to be the person she has always wanted to be when she meets a mysterious woman named Val (Poppy Roe) who wants to become the world’s greatest self-help guru. The only other catch is that Val is a serial killer, something the audience knows immediately but which Lou remains oblivious to for a long while. Yet Val seems to see something in Lou that she likes and offers to take her on as a client. Lou accepts, departs her drearily mundane hometown, and embarks on a journey of discovery stained in blood.
Humor is a vital component of A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life. It is perhaps the film’s biggest asset, because Staten Cousins Roe very finely blends the laughs with the drama and unpleasantness permeating Lou’s life. Take her mother, Maureen for example. This is a hostile woman intent on weakening her daughter’s self-esteem so that she may never stray too far from home. Though easy to recognize, her verbal jabs and spite are largely understated until the moment Lou broaches the subject of going on her excursion with Val. Then the full force of Maureen’s manipulative, sociopathic lunacy spills out in a way that had this author bouncing between laughing harder and feeling more uncomfortable than I have in a long while. It’s an achievement of Roe’s script and certainly of actress Sarah Ball.
The ever present tension derived from the knowledge of Val’s true psychology and intentions and Lou’s ignorance is how Roe uses the uncomfortable juxtaposition of humor and drama to explore some of the deeper implications of the self-help industry and the effect such materials have on its consumers. Humor undercuts the severity of Lou handing her well-being over to Val which actually mirrors society’s reactions to the self-help industry itself. We know Lou is in danger the moment she meets this serial killer, but the vignettes of the two visiting various gurus peddling their laughable paths to happiness before being bludgeoned to death, and Lou’s nonchalant reaction to the revelation of Val’s nature, is reminiscent of the ridicule self-help suffers at the hand of society.
However, ‘suffer’ may be the wrong choice of words when you realize said ridicule is largely insignificant and tame, the sort of disengagement that is really casual acceptance, allowing the industry to continue to flourish despite clearly being harmful.
Lou absorbs all she is told by the books she reads and the seminars she attends, and all the advice is bad. All of it tells her she is not good enough, that she needs to envision someone better and to be that person. Val exudes confidence and is in control of her life—so much so that she places herself in control of the end of other people’s lives. There is a deep sadness, then, to Lou’s attraction to Val, to the notion that Lou is so unhappy with herself that emulating a serial killer who doesn’t really care about her seems a better alternative.
Much like the tension of the horror aspect of this horror-comedy, Roe intelligently undercuts this sadness with the humor to properly satirize his subject, though, as intelligent as it is, one wonders during this brisk 81 minute film if there is too much humor. Roe clearly wishes to express his frustrations with and mistrust of the self-help industry. The film and its themes would be better served by allowing those moments of terror or melancholy to take up more real estate in the film, to have enough room to develop, before the humor returns. If this were the case, perhaps the audience would further empathize and connect with Lou and see Val as more of a villain rather than an agreeable metaphor that makes us say “oh, this isn’t a good idea.” The ending (reminiscent of the recent Daniel Isn’t Real) would also pack more of a punch had the conflict been permitted a more emotional weight, because it is this conflict that is the core of the film.
However, a filmmaker couldn’t ask for a better duo in the leads than Poppy Roe and Katie Brayben. Even when the story maybe drifts too far to the side of humor for some, the strength of Roe and Brayben’s performances center the proceedings with their body language and line deliveries, ensuring that, even if under the surface, the conflict is at least never overlooked and always advancing.
Jesse Berberich | Twitter: @JesseBerberich
Images: Arrow Films