Movies · Reviews

‘Smiley Face Killers’ is Dead on Arrival

There is nothing to smile about here.
a frowning Crispin Glover in Smiley Face Killers
By  · Published on December 4th, 2020

There’s dramatic power and thrills to be found in real life terrors, and films based on (or inspired by) horrifying real-world events often benefit from that association. Reality is scarier by its very nature — this act of terror happened to someone else, and it can happen to you too — but for every Angst (1983) and Zodiac (2007) we get a dozen duds like Green River Killer (2005) and Gacy (2007). The latest film to enter the crowded subgenre is Smiley Face Killers, but while its pedigree is high the final product is a dull, poorly written display of ineptitude.

Onscreen text, some of which arrives more than six minutes into the film, reveals that what we’re about to see is inspired by the real-life mystery that began in the late 90s involving the “suspicious” drownings of over 150 young men, some of which were found near smiley face graffiti. We see a handful of animals left slaughtered and on display and the mess left after a hardware store break-in — neither incident will barely be mentioned again — we watch two guys abducted, we’re given artistically shot glimpses of corpses washed up on a beach, and then, eventually, we’re introduced to Jake (Ronen Rubinstein).

A college student with issues building beyond the classroom, Jake has recently gone “off his meds” and is entering a spiral of sorts. He suspects his girlfriend Keren (Mia Serafino) is straying with her old flame, his days feel disorienting, and worse, someone is messing with his phone. Unbeknownst to Jake, a hooded figure (Crispin Glover, buried beneath prosthetics) is following him in a totally inconspicuous windowless van, and the creeper kicks things up a notch by hacking Jake’s phone and laptop and leaving a map behind with smiley faces stamped throughout. A confrontation seems inevitable as Jake’s paranoia builds and anonymous texts arrive stating that “the water wants you,” and the young man’s fate seems inevitable.

Smiley Face Killers is what some might call a badly made film. Director Tim Hunter and writer Bret Easton Ellis have both been associated with far superior tales of murder, but where Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986) captures a devastating atmosphere of teenage apathy and Ellis’ American Psycho (2000) delivers murderous mayhem with obsessive observation and delicious wit, Smiley Face Killers falls limp in nearly every aspect. It shouldn’t surprise as Hunter’s filmography suggests River’s Edge was a fluke, and American Psycho was vastly improved as a film written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, but it’s still an unexpected disappointment.

The only real highlights are the film’s practical gore and Rubinstein’s performance. On the former, we get some bloody beats involving a hammer kill, and while it’s too brief and minimal overall its impact remains. Rubinstein, though, does good work throughout despite being nude or partially naked through much of the film. The film is clearly playing to the young actor’s fanbase with a shower scene, numerous shirtless sequences, a sex scene, and a third act that sees him fully stripped — curiously, his captors tape a plastic covering over his giblets — but when he’s allowed to act Rubinstein captures well the confusion and concern of a spiralling mind.

That makes it all the more frustrating then when Ellis’ script shortchanges the character with ineffective quiet time and idiotic interactions with others. We’re told repeatedly that Jake is “off his meds” as if that alone explains anything, and while the film clearly wants viewers to empathize with him his unending questionable choices and the wholly illogical antics of the killers leave the entirety an exercise in numb frustration. The killers all wear tattered cloaks, they drive around openly in their murder van, their plans are chaotic and questionably elaborate, and they’re techo-geeks capable of hacking electronics, blocking texts, and more.

And this point needs its own line — they stalk their hopeful drowning victim with an ax (?!) and use a ceremonial process that in no way would ever leave a corpse that could be mistaken for someone who drowned.

Even if you accept the shoddy script, lack of thrills or atmosphere, abundance of unlikable characters, and gaping logic holes, Smiley Face Killers is a pretty poorly constructed film. Editing choices leave unexplained gaps, attempts at artsy visuals are instead ugly, and Kristin Gundred’s score, while solid enough on its face, is nearly omnipresent throughout leaving few moments for quiet contemplation and terror.

The real-life cases have been repeatedly denied by authorities as being the work of a serial killer or group of organized killers, and even some of the supposed smiley face graffiti finds were apparently greatly exaggerated. Still, theories and the resulting urban legends are fascinating in their intricate and terrifying natures. Smiley Face Killers, though, is lazy fanfiction elevating the mystery into something that wants to haunt your dreams but succeeds only in sticking to the bottom of your shoes.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.