Gerard Johnson’s Tony: Portrait of a British Killer

Tony. 2009. Directed & Written by Gerard Johnson.
Starring Peter Ferdinando, Frank Boyce, Lorenzo Camporese, Cyrus Desir, Lucy Flack Ian Groombridge, Ricky Grover, Ish, Eddie Johnson, Mike Johnson, Darren Jones, Greg Kam, Jill Keen, and Sam Kempster. Abbott Vision/Chump Films/Dan McCulloch Productions.
Unrated. 76 minutes.

tony-poster-1-724x1024After having seen Gerard Johnson’s recent thriller Hyena, which is very in-line tonally with the gritty Pusher films by Nicolas Winding Refn, I decided to revisit this creepy little film – Tony. What a wonderful bit of British film; indie film at that!
There’s a way to do a serial killer film, then there are ways not to. For instance, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the greatest of them all, as is David Fincher’s fantastic Zodiac, then there’s midrange mediocrity like The Hillside Strangler offering nothing more than nudity and murder underscoring poor performances, and of course we’ve also seen the terrible outings Nightstalker from serial offender Ulli Lommel, Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, and the Kane Hodder star vehicle Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield. So they run the gamut. Serial killers are interesting to me, so it’s sad that most of the films about them end up terribly made as fodder for horror, instead of horror mixed in with what can often be great psychological thrill (see Fincher’s film based on The Zodiac Killer; lots of cerebral thriller stuff there in my opinion).
With Tony, director and writer Gerard Johnson gets closer to something like John McNaughton’s horror classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than anything else I mentioned. In a totally different manner than any of these other movies, Tony stays extremely sparse, almost to the point I’m sure certain viewers might say “nothing happens”. Yet so much happens. If you wait and watch along with this expertly paced film, full of atmosphere and a grim tone, there is most certainly reward in the horrific moments to which we’re treated. Johnson gives us enough of the inner life of the titular character to both empathize with then later hate him. There’s emotion here you rarely see in a film centred around a serial killer, and that’s interesting enough to make this film enjoyable.
tony3Living alone in a council fat somewhere in Dalston, Tony Benson (Peter Ferdinando) watches 1980s action movies, starring the likes of Steven Seagal and other mainstays of the era. He putters around eating cereal, then heads out on the streets stopping into the pub for a pint and a packet of crisps. It’s obvious Tony has social issues, as he can’t seem to connect with anyone in any sensible shape or form. From the man selling bootleg DVDs on the side of the road, to a prostitute whom he asks “how much for a cuddle?”, to a gay man he takes home from a club, there’s nobody Tony can feel close to without being ridiculed or made to feel Other.
Even worse, most of the people Tony seems to not be able to get along with end up murdered, chopped to pieces in his kitchen sink and in the bathtub. Then they’re packed up: bigger bits are thrown in a bag with lye, smaller stuff like organs get wrapped in newspaper. All of them end up at the bottom of a river.
But when a man’s child goes missing, Tony ends up as Suspect Number One and there’s no telling if, or how, he will get out of it all.
To92lEarly on I felt bad for Tony (Ferdinando), as he’s basically run out of a bar because a big loud mouthed idiot is tearing into his wife yelling – Tony stares a little too long, enjoying the scene a bit too much, and the big fella comes over, grabbing him by the face and pushing his fingers slightly into Tony’s eyes. Instead of kicking the crazy man out, Tony gets the toss; a look on his face afterwards is full of anger, confusion, yet most of all it’s the disappointment I see inside him which gets to me.
Even once you see who Tony really is, back at his council flat, lonely and looking for any kind of human connection, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for how pitiful he seems. Through his confrontations with the man at the bar, Paul (Ricky Grover), we get this terrible feeling in our gut. Once you learn Tony is a killer, you imagine it might lead to this man’s death. What’s more interesting than wondering where it might go is the fact we see how vulnerable Tony is, as well as how overlooked and unassuming he is as a person. All the while Paul is harassing Tony, from the bar to the street where he’s looking for his supposedly missing son, this seemingly lonely guy is in his flat, murdering, disposing of bodies, bagging them up and tossing bits into the river while he’s out for a walk. The terror comes from how creepy Tony is and how, most likely, he’ll probably end up killing and killing and killing without every stopping; simply because nobody ever notices him.
Tony-London-Serial-Killer-www.whysoblu.com_Another thing I really love about this film is how director-writer Johnson doesn’t give us everything served on a platter. Not saying there’s a treasure trove of secret information lying within Tony. What I’m saying is that Tony, as a character, is explored in fine form without having to dive deep into his background, his history, and so on. What we do get is a very brief voiceover, as Tony is doing his dead body routine, washing up, getting things taken care of, which I’m positive HAS to be about Tony’s father – more than likely an abusive, terrible man to Tony, perhaps why he’s remained in a sort of stasis all his life more of a child eternally than an adult man. What gets me most about this voiceover moment is that it’s very subtle, quiet in volume even, and you really have to make sure you’re paying attention to get that it ISN’T Tony thinking to himself or anything like that (which some have suggested online). Right before a knock comes at the door, the voiceover gets louder and echoes hard. I thought the whole sequence was incredible. The fact this happens with just under 15 minutes left to the film is something I’m a fan of, as it doesn’t answer every question we have concerning Tony yet there’s a definite understanding of the man having serious childhood issues, no doubt traumatized by a physically and mentally abusive father. The way Johnson doesn’t spell every last bit out concerning Tony reminds me of the aforementioned McNaughton horror, where Henry is frightening enough without knowing every last detail about what made him a killer. Because of this approach, Johnson allows us to form our own terrifying versions of Tony and his trauma, what led him to kill, all in our own minds. Furthermore, I like that Johnson gives us that opportunity: it means he knows an audience can think for themselves.

One thing I have to mention is the fact parts of Tony reflect the infamous killer Dennis Nilsen. Such as when Tony ends up killing a gay man he brought home from the bar; rejecting the man’s sexual advances, Tony kills him similar to how Nilsen worked at times. Even further than that, there’s almost a physical resemblance to Nilsen in the way Tony looks. As well as the fact Tony also keeps a corpse around to sleep with in bed, waking up in the morning to the dead body; Nilsen would also do the same, only to later dismember the corpse and dispose of it. Tony, like Nilsen, had a foul stench in his flat due to the bodies/body parts most likely stuffed in the floorboards, or somewhere similar, which is exactly what happened with Nilsen – he actually put deodorant in the floors and sprayed insecticide about regularly, but it didn’t do much because dead bodies are RUTHLESS when it comes to their smell and the insects it attracts.
So what I enjoy is that there’s most definitely lots of influence of Nilsen here, yet the plot and story itself don’t particularly follow along much with the real life serial killer. Tony is his own person and not every aspect of him comes out of Nilsen. Tony is a much more socially disturbed and helpless individual than Nilsen ever was. I venture to bet Tony has never once had a relationship in his life, fairly obvious throughout the film when he can barely even talk to a prostitute or friendly neighbourhood women alike. So it’s the interesting introspective view of Tony that I like overall, but I definitely agree the addition of the aspects mirroring Nilsen help to setup one intriguing character study.
tony_004A 4.5 out of 5 star film, hands down. There’s a great score on top of everything from Matt Johnson and The The, which puts an intriguing atmosphere over things. Along with the cinematography by David Higgs – very gritty, realistic, and raw – Tony‘s score is something which makes this film exactly what it is meant to be. Director-writer Gerard Johnson crafts a simple, small story into an intensely savage view into the life of a lonely, socially cut-off serial killer. Peter Ferdinando gives us everything as Tony and chills me with each scene. One grim modern horror movie with all the right stuff.
While I can imagine some won’t feel the same as I do about the pace and the plot, or the fantastically creepy/grim befitting ending, I honestly love this film. One of the best character study films surrounding a serial killer that you can get your hands on. If you like the style Johnson has in this one, you should definitely check out Hyena; a much different plot and characters, but another wild ride into a brutal world again starring Peter Ferdinando, whom I believe to be one hell of an actor. Check this one out, then see that as well – or the other way around. Just see Johnson’s work and enjoy. I hope you’ll get into as much as I did.

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