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.