A Serial Killers Guide to Life

{Movie Review} A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life

Despite its immense popularity, I would wager that most people are wary of self-help guides. There’s just something that feels off about even the most well-intentioned life coach. From the outside looking in, Self-help provides ripe material for horror. The self-empowerment tapes of yesterday and podcasts of today could be sending secret messages. The founder of a movement can be turned into a cult-leader. I’m surprised it hasn’t really been done before Arrow Film’s new movie, A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life.

A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life follows the disaffected self-help addict Lou (Katie Brayben) as she treks across England with serial killer and wannabe guru, Val (Poppy Roe). Val is on a mission to become the world’s most well-known self-help expert and to accomplish that, she plans on killing every other guru she meets on her trip.

The premise is instantly attention grabbing, but despite this wild conceit, the thing that struck me most was the film’s restraint. Many of the kills happen offscreen and the kills we do witness are relatively bloodless. Instead of reveling in gore, the action is instead about the act of killing itself. Shots are focused on the motion of stabbing, or the arc of a rolling pin just before it collides with a head. Not only does this give the film a unique look, it puts you in the mindset of its main characters. The killings in A Serial Killer’s Guide to life aren’t about violence, they’re about power.

A Serial Killers Guide to Life
Photo Courtesy of Arrow

Selling this are the two lead actresses. The film itself doesn’t give much for either Lou or Val’s backstories and yet the audience is immediately able to understand everything they need to know about the characters and their lives from how the two actresses portray them.

Lou’s dissatisfaction with life doesn’t need an explanation, we believe it because Katie Brayben plays Lou with such despair that it’s difficult not to empathize with her, even if her solution to despair is going on a road trip with a serial killer. Val is on the exact opposite end on the spectrum. Poppy Roe gives Val an otherworldly balance between cool confidence and burning sociopathy. The fact that her character is believable as both a self-help guide and a serial killer is a testament to Roe’s performance.

Both leading women deliver performances anchored by body language as much as dialogue. Lou’s slight slouch, Val’s wide-eyed stare, all of it communicates character without directly telling the audience much.

Though the supporting cast doesn’t receive nearly the focus that Val and Lou have, they still manage to shine. The roulette of guru’s encountered are all fun and it’s genuinely distressing to see them murdered. It would have been easy for A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life to portray these leaders as self-obsessed or amoral, but with one notable exception, the gurus all appear to be mostly nice people who believe in what they’re selling.

There is a fundamental tension this creates. On one hand, the audience wants to see Lou find happiness and purpose, but on the other, that makes her an accomplice to Val’s killing spree. Luckily, the film moves at such a brisk pace that the audience is not expected to reconcile this tension while they’re watching the two commit their crimes.

Excerpts from an interview with Val and Lou’s main target, life-coach Chuck Knoah (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), appear after every kill to mark the start of a new section. There is a flow to these sections, with each section being shorter than the last as Val’s rampage through self-help becomes ever more frenzied. All this reflects back on Lou’s mental state.

The direction puts you into Lou’s head and makes you understand how everything feels to her. As Lou becomes frantic and disoriented, the editing becomes choppier. Daydreams and thoughts are intercut with actual events until the audience is just as uncertain of reality as Lou.

Uncertainty is a good word to describe the latter third of A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life. There is a lot of ambiguity about what really happens in the last few sections and even a second viewing doesn’t leave many hints as to what exactly did or didn’t happen. Some might find fault with this, perhaps wanting a narrative with easier answers. For me though, the uncertainty was an important thematic choice.

There is so much advice and so many different people telling us how to improve ourselves that it becomes difficult to tell fact from fiction. All of it ties back into power. In A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, life coaches hold power over people because they offer certainty, they offer an easier way to live. Ultimately, the audience is left to wonder how Val’s approach to solving life’s uncertainties is much different than the gurus she pursues.A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is a film that will leave the viewer thinking. Though some viewers might be turned off by the plot’s ambiguities, the film offers enough solid direction and acting that most should be able to find something to enjoy.

Courtesy of Arrow

1 comment

  1. People keep comparing it to Thelma and Louise, when really Fight Club is closer to the mark for me. Great performances, fine direction and a good storyline.