More films are off-putting than not these days, but "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" is not content with that alone: It's unpleasant to no discernible purpose.
Based with considerable looseness on the true crime story of a British teenager who quite methodically attempted to poison friends and family alike, "Poisoner's" pats itself on the back for telling its story from the point of view of the 14-year-old malefactor, but that is just the kind of pride that cometh before a fall.
Neither funny enough to qualify as a black comedy nor sharp enough to rank with the ruthless Belgian "Man Bites Dog" as a look inside a psychopathic personality, "Poisoner's" apparent intent, and one it is successful in, is to torture the audience as thoroughly as the youthful Graham Young tortured his victims.
Played by Hugh O'Conor with the kind of wide-eyed stare usually associated with "The Night of the Living Dead," Graham is a precocious London youth fascinated with gore and decapitation, the kind of curious boy whose recreational reading includes books such as "My Friends on the Slab."
Obsessed with chemistry for as long as he can remember, Graham coolly considers life to be no more than "a series of illusions that only the scientist could strip away." His aim, at least initially, is to "hold the secrets of existence in the palm of my hand."
Not such a bad ambition, one might think. But a series of mishaps with his doltish stepmother, shrewish sister and idiot friends as well as a painfully botched scientific experiment give Graham's thoughts a darker cast.
And once he stumbles on a deadly substance called Thallium, "tasteless, colorless, odorless, untraceable," Graham's mind is made up: He'll become the greatest poisoner the world has ever seen, even though part of him sadly realizes the only way to achieve that level of acclaim is to get caught.
Graham's problem as a protagonist is not that he's evil, a common enough movie condition. It's that as conceived of by director Benjamin Ross and his co-screenwriter Jeff Rawle, Graham is a brittle little twerp too tediously self-absorbed to be a figure of much interest.
Seeing the world from Graham's point of view may sound neat, but in practice, having almost everyone in the film portrayed as a contemptible grotesque soon loses its charm. And the decision not to unduly caricature a psychiatrist (Anthony Sher) who tries to help Graham only underlines how off-putting the rest of the characterizations are.
Even more unhappy for the audience is the chance to experience the effects of Graham's potions. "Poisoners" happily displays victims hideously bleeding from the mouth, agonizing through painful stomach contortions, losing their hair in grotesque clumps and throwing up copious amounts of bile at every opportunity. For those hungry for more, there is even a graphically depicted suicide by hanging.
"The Young Poisoner's Handbook," it can be argued, is all of a piece, the product of a unified and consistent vision. Still the question remains, who would want to share it?
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: constant and graphic looks at the effects of deadly poison.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
'The Young Poisoners Handbook'
Hugh O'Conor: Graham
Anthony Sher: Dr. Ziegler
Ruth Sheen: Molly
Roger Lloyd Pack: Fred
Charlotte Coleman: Winnie
Paul Stacey: Dennis
Samantha Edmonds: Sue
A Mass Productions film in co-production with Kinowelt and Haut et Court with the participation of the Bavarian Film Fund, British Screen, Eurimages and Pandora, released by Cinepix Film Properties Distribution. Director Benjamin Ross. Producer Sam Taylor. Executive producers Caroline Hewitt, Eric Stonestrom. Screenplay Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross. Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski. Editor Anne Sopel. Costumes Stewart Meachem. Production design Maria Djurkovic. Art director Mark Stevenson. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
* At the Port Theatre, Newport Beach, and the Nuart, West Los Angeles.