Sojourner McKenzie reviews new comedy horror A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life
CW: contains spoilers for the film.
I confess: I love self-help books. Particularly the ones with a new age, law of attraction, manifesting-your-dream-life vibe. I have crystals, I have a vision board, I do future-self journaling every morning. I read way too many of these – they’re tucked away under my bed, since my roommates were starting to worry that I was having a mental breakdown. I was, but that’s not the point.
So I was primed to like A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life. The film is directed by Staten Cousins-Roe and stars Katie Brayburn as lead character Lou, a woman desperate to get out of her brain-numbing job and away from her definitely toxic, smothering mother. She does this by attending endless self-help seminars and piling vision boards on top of the latest non-fiction bestsellers. That’s until she meets Val, played by Poppy Roe, an enigmatic woman who wants to be the best life coach in the world. Oh, and she’s a serial killer.
Val offers Lou the chance to join her on a road trip across the (surprisingly numerous) self-help communities of Essex, culminating in a visit to Chuck Knoah (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), Lou’s favourite self-help author.
The tone lies somewhere between Submarine and Thelma and Louise – a British black comedy about a road-trip of destructive women. You’re definitely supposed to side with these two, traipsing around the British countryside, killing the people in these niche healing communities.
I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, I get it. The tree-huggers, the sound-healers and the laughing therapy are very easy to make fun of. Add that to the fact that the gurus behind most of these workshops belong to an upper-middle-class world, the question of how much “changing your life” depends on will rather than money or the possibility to take three days off and spend them howling in the woods is very often hinted at. Ben who smears blood over himself and the other campers to get in touch with Nature, with a capital N, is a clear pastiche of these kinds of people. This scene is a microcosm of the things that do and don’t work about the film.
When the ridiculous is heightened, it’s funny and uncomfortable in the way that only British humour does well, but then Val just kills everyone. For no reason other than contempt.
When Lou finds out about Val’s after-hours activities, she joins in rather seamlessly. It doesn’t matter that the police is on their trail or that they never bother to clear evidence or use plastic gloves – their murders continue without obstacles.
That’s until they kill Chuck Knoah, who unsurprisingly turns out to be a total fraud, and Val frames Lou by calling the police on her. Lou stabs Val, running ensues, Val catches up and, as a police helicopter noisily flies over their heads, she tells Lou that, unlike these self-proclaimed gurus, the two of them are not gods and it’s time to put their mission to rest. Without a way out, Lou stabs Val one more time and then stabs herself. When the police arrive, there is no trace of Val.
This brings us onto the big Fight Club question at the heart of it – Are Val and Lou the same person? I got the sense that the film wanted to play it both ways. There are enough hints for audiences to catch up really early on. Although characters talk to both Val and Lou when they’re together, Val never seems to exist separately from Lou. She disappears from Lou’s side at times but we never see her interact with others on her own. One of the film’s most unsettling sequences focuses on a meditation session in which Lou explores her inner trauma in relation to her mother. As she goes through the memories of the trip, Val’s face morphs into her own, while agonising screams echo in the background.
This twist certainly helps in providing a better motivation for the murders. Lou retaliates against all these people who were meant to help her but never actually did. But the film doesn’t play with it quite enough. There’s no point in leaving it ambiguous: it just doesn’t work with Val being an actual separate individual. She has no motivation and her entire fascination with Lou is random and unjustified. In a world of American Psycho and Killing Eve, I kinda want to know why killers are killing people. Even Joker, as problematic as it is, owns its box-office success to its focus on this question.
Lou starts off as a painfully passive lead and never steps up from there. Her final move of stabbing Val is a desperate reaction to Val’s betrayal. Her journey could have benefited from her gaining awareness of her serial killer tendencies and morphing into a new person that combines both Lou and Val. Instead, she prefers to kill herself off before that can happen.
It’s an entertaining film, don’t get me wrong, and a remarkable addition to Britain’s independent genre movies. But it’s not gory or campy enough for it to have any depth. The characters lack the spark that makes them truly memorable. We’ve definitely reached to the point where writing serial killers comes with a baggage of expectations. It’s a shame Cousins-Roe doesn’t quite do enough to throw them all up in the air.
A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE is available on iTunes and selected cinemas.
Images courtesy of ARpublicity.
1. We’re in an open space. Val is in the foreground. She is on her knees, holding a bloody rolling pin and hitting someone on the ground. Behind her is Lou, also staring down at the out-of-frame body.
2. Lou and Val are in a car, screaming with their mouths open wide. Several trees are reflected in the windscreen.