One of the first lessons every schlock-fiend learns ear­ly on is “don’t judge a film by its video-box.”  Fantastic art can obscure cheapo duds and lousy and/or decep­tive graph­ics can often do a bad job of sell­ing a good film.  For a recent exam­ple of the lat­ter idea, con­sid­er the ad cam­paign for Tony.  The box makes it look like any num­ber of psy­cho-sploita­tion shock­ers, right down to the hor­ror-angled sub­ti­tling of the film as Tony: London Serial Killer.  However, if you actu­al­ly watch the film you’ll dis­cov­er it’s some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent from what its box is sell­ing: unique, seri­ous and much more dis­turbing in its qui­et way than any gore-a-thon could hope to be.

The title char­ac­ter, played in a dis­arm­ing and sub­tle man­ner by Peter Ferdinando, is not an obvi­ous lunatic.  Instead, he’s one of those sad souls who ekes out an exis­tence on the fringe of soci­ety.  Tony is a social­ly-stunt­ed, pos­si­bly autis­tic lon­er who is on the dole.  Most days are spent wan­der­ing about aim­less­ly, occa­sion­al­ly stop­ping into a pub or a whore­house in an attempt to behave the way he thinks a man should behave.  He also spends much of his free time watch­ing VHS tapes of old action flicks, most­ly of the b-movie vari­ety.

Tony’s social skills are weak at best (he’s fond of quot­ing First Blood in his rare con­ver­sa­tions with oth­ers) and he lives a par­tic­u­lar­ly grimy-look­ing coun­cil flat in a down-mar­ket area of London.  Thus, his rare inter­ac­tions are lim­it­ed to society’s dregs: junkies, hus­tlers and the occa­sion­al author­i­ty fig­ure.  He’s not too bright so he is fre­quent­ly tak­en advan­tage of… but woe be unto those who blun­der or brow­beat their way into his flat.  They soon dis­cov­er the place stinks like a rot­ting corpse — and that Tony has a very fatal way of deal­ing with awk­ward social sit­u­a­tions in his home.

The above premise could have been the grist for anoth­er psy­cho-thriller but the film­mak­ers behind Tony take a dif­fer­ent and very reward­ing approach.  The script avoids a hor­ror-movie struc­ture, instead going for an indie-movie episod­ic style.  This approach, com­bined with Gerard Johnson’s min­i­mal­ist, almost doc­u­men­tary-like direc­to­ri­al tech­niques, gives the film a drift­ing, hyp­notic rhythm that makes Tony’s peri­od­ic out­bursts of vio­lence all the more unnerv­ing.

The film also takes a dis­pas­sion­ate autho­ri­al voice that nei­ther glo­ri­fies nor con­demns the main character’s actions.  It uses him the way oth­er films of this ilk use a con­ven­tion­al audi­ence-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion fig­ure, ask­ing us to step into his shoes and attempt to under­stand his odd life.  As a result, the view­er is forced to think about the exter­nal forces that shape the character’s behav­ior and, in some cas­es, uncon­scious­ly abet his killings.  This tack gives Tony an effec­tive and unique ele­ment of social cri­tique that is effec­tive with­out being heavy-hand­ed or didac­tic.

Equally impor­tant to the film’s effec­tive­ness is Ferdinando’s per­for­mance in the title role.  He com­plete­ly side­steps psy­cho-flick the­atrics, mak­ing Tony a dys­func­tion­al neb­bish who can be odd­ly like­able at times.  He can also tap into the pathos or the dark humor of a moment with­out over­play­ing it.  When the time comes for his char­ac­ter to com­mit a mur­der, it is done in a blank and unthink­ing man­ner that is sev­er­al times scari­er than any amount of scenery-chew­ing “scary” antics could ever be.

To sum up, Tony is a dark and potent lit­tle gem that will catch cult-film types by sur­prise.  It takes the path less trav­eled into seri­al-killer ter­ri­to­ry and comes back with a impres­sive­ly com­plex and art­ful nar­ra­tive that will stay with you long after the cred­its have fin­ished rolling.