I Am Not A Serial Killer, 2016.
Directed by Billy O’Brien.
Starring Max Records, Christopher Lloyd and Laura Fraser.
Sixteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records, Where the Wild Things Are) is not a serial killer—but he has all the makings of one. Keeping his homicidal tendencies and morbid obsessions with death and murder in check is a constant struggle that only gets harder when a real serial killer begins terrorizing his sleepy Midwestern town. Now, in order to track down a psychopath and protect those around him, John must unleash his darkest inner demons. Based on the cult novel by Dan Wells, this twisted, genre-bending thriller co-stars Christopher Lloyd and Breaking Bad’s Laura Fraser.
Enveloped in a uniquely bleak and distinctive 70’s feel by one of our time’s most progressive cinematographers Robbie Ryan, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a dark but oddly humorous take on our society’s fascination with maniacs, sociopaths and all things evil. Set in one of Midwestern towns of Minnesota, the film is channeled through the eyes of a 16 year-old teenager John Cleaver, who is struggling to tame his homicidal tendencies as his little town starts getting attacked by an unknown maniac.
Cleaver’s diagnosis is not self-induced – his extremely likeable but useless therapist Dr. Neblin has clinically proven that John is a sociopath and a ticking time bomb, unable to deal with a trauma of parental abandonment and school bullying. His condition deteriorates when John starts suspecting his elderly neighbor Bill in the supernatural sinister activities across town and obsession with him starts bordering with maniacal craze. John actively decides to pursue the crime-solving himself as this allows him to subconsciously align his dark urges with the ones of the serial killer.
The investigative task turns out to be not as complicated as it seemed considering the formation of John’s maniacal alter-ego which starts to take over him, giving away a fearful impression to his family and fellow school mates that there is another young murderer currently in the making. Here is where an original message advocated by the director Billy O’Brien and his co-writer Christopher Hyde gets a little bit lost in translation – to which degree of seriousness does this psychological indie-thriller wants to take itself? Is this a homage to the early glory days of The X-Files, where the monsters crawled out of the human skin and aliens lived amongst us, disguised as our friends? Or is this some sort of an apocalyptic vision of Gia Coppola’s ‘Palo Alto gone wrong, exposing the fragile mental states of the poor teenagers?
You cannot really define John’s living situation as conventional – raised by a single mother who owns a funeral home, John’s after-school activities have not exactly been tennis or football. The film spends a good chunk of its opening sequence depicting John ardently helping his mother and her colleague during the embalming process. And it does seem that the sixteen year old teenager is quite agile with the dissecting tools. Death and misery have been ingrained in his consciousness from very early age and it is not surprising that John does not really fall under the ‘normal’ teenager category. He even confesses to his school mate Max that the reason why he spends time with him is only because he makes him feel ‘normal’.
So the film gives us an ambivalent take on the nature of teenage evil urges – John is not necessarily a bad kid. He has grown to be uncomfortable in his own skin, unable to find his ‘safe’ place within the cut-throat adolescent world of high-school kids. His weird upbringing did not help either as blue corpses and scalpels have firmly inhabited his everyday world.
John’s quest after his monster-in-disguise neighbor Mr. Crowley also becomes a crippled version of a journey towards self-discovery. He alienates himself from the outside world completely only to victoriously surface back onto everyone’s radars as a local hero after he defeats the serial killer. There is a certain similarity between John Cleaver and Hannibal’s Will Graham – they are the only ones who are able to defeat the outside demons only after they have battled their own.
What makes Billy O’Brien’s indie flick really stand out is that the evil in the film always co-exists with the ridiculous. Dark humor reminiscent of Six Feet Under is sprinkled throughout the film, giving it a quirky and outlandish feel. The dark drama centered around teenage sociopathy is dissolved with the occasional outbursts of feel-good comedy, giving the film a slight cheer despite the utterly dark subject matter. That is why it is really hard to take the I Am Not a Serial Killer seriously as its crude social commentary is disguised until a thick layer of weirdness. And this is a moment where you would think that this weirdness to become a filmmaker’s trademark and would generate a cult following – yet here, unfortunately, O’Brien gets a bit lost along the way and toward the end of the film you get slightly confused over what is actually happening on the screen. The menacing becomes humorous and the humorous then, in turn, becomes absurd. I just wish there was a bit more direct trajectory to those transitions.
The real accolade goes to the child star Max Records, who came to prominence after appearing alongside the adorable hairy monsters in Where The Wild Things Are. He approaches his first adult role with depth and complexity, never succumbing to one mental state but keeping a good balance between lucidity and madness. He is deeply scarred by his blazing teenage angst but he is never too ‘emo’ – and Records has a great gift or taking a full control over his emotions and channeling them according to the situation.
With a couple of slight narrative hiccups and mishaps, overall I Am Not a Serial Killer is an impressive indie thriller which was not intimidated by its low budget and which gives Dan Wells’ YA series a good cinematic face. Beautiful cinematography and hit-and-miss bizarre jokes are only a part of its charm, and the underlying perpetual idea of a monster in the human skin has never been more perfectly appropriated.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★