Notes From Sundance

'Simon Killer,' Sundance’s Natalee Holloway-Inspired Neo-Noir Thriller

Sundance founder Robert Redford loves this year's documentaries, but the fictional entries are just as fresh from the headlines.

01.21.12 10:37 PM ET

Sundance founder/eminence gris Robert Redford recently voiced the opinion that several hard-edged documentaries screening at the festival (such as Chasing Ice and Detropia) “represent what’s going on in our country.”

But other movies with strong echoes of present day reality—films that were similarly born out of news headlines—can be found outside Sundance’s non-fiction entries. Exhibit A: the brutish dramatic thriller Simon Killer that premiered Friday in Park City to enthusiastic crowd response. The movie owes its genesis to a high-profile subject of interest who’s been in the news in recent days: a suspected international serial killer who preys on young women.

Directed by Antonio Campos (who came to Sundance last year as producer of Martha Marcy May Marlene), Simon Killer follows disaffected recent college grad Simon (portrayed by Brady Corbet) as he drifts around Paris, attempting to lick his wounds after an acrimonious break-up with a longtime girlfriend. Simon is a lost soul, a man-child operating in wounded bird-mode with a barely-there grasp of French, when he shacks up with Victoria, a hooker with a proverbial heart of gold. And from there, the film takes a nose dive into neo-noir with Simon going sucked into a vortex of blackmail and deceit that both physically and emotionally batters the women around him.

As Campos and Corbet explained after the screening, they based the character on Joran van der Sloot the young Dutchman accused of killing Natalee Holloway in Aruba who recently pleaded guilty to killing Peruvian college student Stephany Flores and was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Researching Van der Sloot, Campos and Corbet—who collaborated closely on creating the character—discovered the Dutchman strongly self-identified with animals. That led to the movie’s inclusion of Simon’s quirky penchant for seeing himself as the king of the jungle.

“We found a quote,” Campos said. “[Van der Sloot] had said, ‘If I had to describe myself, I’d describe myself as a snake. I like to describe myself as a lion, though. And one day a lion I will be.’ That really struck Brady and I.

Corbet (previously seen in such movies as Martha Marcy and Mysterious Skin as well as TV’s 24) called Simon Killer “a coming of age story of someone who comes of age in a really terrible way.”