Frank (Wood) is a lonely, isolated man who spends his days working in his mother’s abandoned mannequin restoration shop. At night, his serial killer tendencies come to fruition as he roams the streets of downtown Los Angeles, picking on innocent women to murder and slicing off their scalps as a form of keepsake. When he crosses paths with beautiful French art student Anna (Nora Arnedezer), however, they strike up an unlikely friendship that forces Frank to battle his inner demons harder than ever before.
Shot almost exclusively through Frank’s POV, Kaulfoun lavishes in the instantly controversial filming style that places the audience deep within Frank’s troubled psyche, forcing them to squirm and flinch as they witness a serial killer committing murders – from the effectively simple to the outlandishly brutal – in excruciating, up-close-and-personal detail. It’s a stomach-churning trick that’s reminiscent of Peeping Tom, but Kaulfoun does his best to ensure it’s more than mere voyeurism, rather a deeply disturbing portrait of a deranged man.
The structure of the narrative mirrors Frank’s savage and unexpected state of mind perfectly, with screenwriters Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur and C.A. Rosenberg adopting a brutal, kill-after-kill structure that’s propelled by violence and force. Frank’s motivation stems from his overbearing mother’s sudden death, and it’s only when Anna arrives on the scene that Frank begins to question his actions, even if the reasons for their attraction is left unclear.
It’s the effects that make Maniac stand-out though, with the narrative more often than not simply there to provide a simple framework. In addition to the POV shooting style, Kaulfoun incorporates brief instances where Frank’s reflection is captured through mirrors and surfaces, a clever technique that accurately represents his fractured mental state and forces him to take a step back and view his actions from the outside in. Rob’s thumping score, too, and the callousness of the violence contribute to the nerve-shredding tone.
His increasingly intense lapses in reality are captured through neat camerawork and editing to illustrate his ongoing struggle as his relationship with Anna deepens, his mother’s grasp is rocked (America Olivio’s appearances are brief, yet effective in signifying the power Frank’s mother held over him) and he’s pushed and pulled between one and the other. Ultimately though, Maniac is excelled by a career-altering performance from Wood and an uncomfortable sense of realism that’s vested – and maintained – throughout.