Release: Friday, August 26, 2016
Written by: Billy O’Brien; Christopher Hyde
Directed by: Billy O’Brien
It’s a bold move naming your protagonist as a riff on real-life serial killer and rapist John Wayne Gacy, but then this is a bold movie with a bold title, one based on the 2009 novel of the same name written by Dan Wells, the first in a trilogy. It tells of a troubled teenager who encounters a string of grisly murders in his sleepy Midwestern town and becomes obsessed with finding out who is behind them, all while struggling to keep his own demons at bay.
The titular “weird until proven normal” character is an ostracized teen named John Wayne Cleaver played brilliantly by Max Records, a youthful actor seemingly plucked from a Nirvana music video. But the film he stars in doesn’t smell like teen spirit as much as it does carry whiffs of the Duffer brothers’ original hit series Stranger Things. Directed by Billy O’Brien, I Am Not a Serial Killer is both atmospheric and deeply involving, a film that takes viewers to places that are as disturbing as they are fascinating.
There’s something dark consuming John. He demonstrates an unhealthy fascination with death and is antisocial to the point where his therapist (Karl Geary) and his mother (Laura Fraser) have become greatly concerned about his future. Though he exudes some level of altruism by doing odd jobs for elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), John spends most of his time embalming corpses with his mother at their family-run funeral parlor. It’s no surprise that when townsfolk start disappearing John finds himself drawn to the mysteries surrounding them, notably the pools of black oil left behind at the scene. One afternoon after following a drifter he suspects to be the murderer, John makes a stunning discovery that only plunges him further into his weird obsessions.
What unfolds is an unsettling exploration of fate and circumstance and how one’s environment — and more specifically, one’s proximity to tragedy — influences psychological and physical behavior. I Am Not a Serial Killer compels through sheer force of atmosphere alone — the chilly No-Name town doing its part to instill a sense of loneliness and isolation that complements the film’s themes and that exacerbates the horror. Steam rising out of a factory offers up a particularly ominous visual motif.
Ultimately the piece manifests as a slow-burning character study that may not offer up much in the way of cheap, easy thrills but it compensates for a lack of action with natural, unforced creepiness and methodical tension-building. It’s also an impressively acted affair. Christopher Lloyd still has great presence and it’s wonderful to see him take part in something as underground as I Am Not a Serial Killer. But the film really belongs to Records, whose intensely cerebral performance finds the humanity buried deep beneath the film’s icy façade. It’s a break-out performance you just have to experience for yourself.
Recommendation: A movie that exists on the fringe of humanity and flirts with insanity at every turn, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a bonafide midnight horror gem that offers much to fans of thoughtful, meditative storytelling. And fans of Stranger Things should find much to like here as well.
Running Time: 104 mins.
Quoted: “I’ve been clinically diagnosed with sociopathy, Rob. To me, you’re an object, you know. You’re a thing. You’re about as important to me as a cardboard box, and the thing about cardboard boxes is that they’re totally boring on the outside, right? But sometimes, if you cut them open, there’ll be something interesting on the inside. So, while you’re saying all these boring things to me, I’m thinking about what it’d be like to cut you open.”
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