A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is bookended by brief platitudes from fictional motivational speaker Chuck Knoah. Writer and director Staten Cousins Roe sets the stage for his feature debut before introducing us to one of the film’s leads, Louise (Katie Brayben). When we first meet Lou, she’s aimlessly walking along a rocky shoreline listening to a Chuck Knoah audiobook. Lou’s life consists of mind-numbing routine, whether at her low-paying job as a shop clerk or at home with her overbearing mother. In the space of just a few moments, the film provides a clear sense of Louise’s character and her mundane struggles.
Lou’s only escape from the drudgery comes from her reliance on self-help in all its various forms. Despite this constant diet of positive affirmations, Lou seems paralyzed, unable to make meaningful change in her life. All this changes on the day that Louise meets Val (Poppy Roe, who also edited and produced), a self-proclaimed life coach. Val gives Lou her business card, and after one meeting, Val extends an offer that Lou can’t pass up.
At home, Lou discusses this opportunity with her mother over dinner. Her mother is appalled by this notion. She throws her food and then herself on the floor. Lou is momentarily frozen by this unnecessary guilt trip. Her indecision passes quickly. Lou packs her things and sets off to find herself.
Soon Val and Lou are traveling the English countryside. Lou is initially oblivious to what is going on, seeming to be overwhelmed by her newfound freedom. Val has a body in the trunk of her car, and the pair will leave many more in their wake. Val plans their route, which culminates in a visit to Chuck Knoah’s country home.
Along the way, Lou and Val drop in on numerous questionable self-help practitioners. It’s a veritable rogues’ gallery of faux shamans, rebirthers, skeevy new-agers, and snake oil salesmen. If you’ve met any of these characters (or people who swear by their wares), you’ll likely have more than a few wry chuckles during these scenes. As the road trip continues, the body count increases. Though Lou is at first seemingly ignorant to Val’s murderous urges, before long she joins in the killing. The duo are soon big news, their exploits providing fodder for tabloids and talk radio as they barrel toward their final destination.
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is structured in vignettes, each one corresponding to a platitude from Chuck Knoah’s teachings. These scenarios are all interconnected and drive the story forward, without overstaying their welcome. The real highlight of the film is the interplay between Brayben and Roe. Their roles are vastly different, and the actresses portray these irredeemable characters in a likable way. Most of the film’s kills are not overly violent, focusing on the end result as opposed to an abundance of gore. The cinematography is notable, particularly in capturing the rural settings.
Minor spoilers follow…
One aspect of the film didn’t really work for me, and holds it back from a higher rating. There is a specific choice made in the final act of the film that calls into question much of what has been seen previously. We’ve seen this story beat used more effectively in other films. I won’t mention them by name here, though I’m sure you’ll be able to name one or more after seeing A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life. Repeated viewings of the film only make these narrative choices stand out more noticeably. While it could be waved away with the unreliable narrator trope, I did find myself wishing the film had handled either this decision or its reveal differently.
Overall, A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is an assured, if slightly flawed, feature debut. The film has on several occasions been compared to Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and it is similar in tone and presentation. Director Staten Cousins Roe deftly builds on his experience directing the short film This Way Out, which also starred Katie Brayben and Poppy Roe. The character work between Lou and Val is the real highlight, along with the pitch-black humor.
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life will be available on iTunes and Digital HD in the US and Canada on January 13th.
‘A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life’ Leaves a Trail of Bodies and Gallows Humor
Despite a final-act story beat that may not resonate with all viewers, A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is a worthwhile pitch-black comedy with engaging character work from its two leads. Gore hounds may wish for more of the red stuff, but fans of Sightseers (or anyone who’s ever been subjected to someone’s discussion of their “rebirthing” experience) will find grim amusement to be had here.