Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Billy O’Brien
Writer: Billy O’Brien, Christopher Hyde, Dan Wells
Producer: Nick Ryan, James Harris, Mark Lane
Stars: Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christina Baldwin, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Anna Sundberg, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucile Lawton, Christopher Lloyd
A teenager fighting his own sociopathic tendencies discovers a strange serial killer might be loose in a small Midwestern town.
John Wayne Cleaver is a name loaded with multiple meanings. Evidently, the young man’s divorced parents favored classic actors since his sister goes by Lauren Bacall Cleaver. But beyond rechristening Marion Morrison as ‘The Duke,’ those first two words also call to mind the horrific crimes of part-time clown and full-time psycho John Wayne Gacy. Similarly dual-edged is the surname Cleaver, concurrently conjuring a sharp butcher’s blade while symbolizing the picturesque American family from seminal 50s sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.”
None of this is accidental. Mixing the macabre with Mayfield is the full intent and trade specialty of “I Am Not a Serial Killer,” the film adaptation of Dan Wells’ 2009 novel, the first in a trilogy and one of several books featuring teenage sociopath John Wayne Cleaver.
Diagnosed with homicidal tendencies, John keeps his eviler urges in check by following a simple set of rules for putting up an appearance of relative normalcy, even when routine bullying complicates his crush on a classmate at school. The family business also happens to be funeral home operation, and his mother April thinks she can pacify John’s death fixation by allowing him to assist with body processing and embalming.
John is otherwise a "good person," albeit a bit of a sulking loner, though his fascination with infamous killers is a constant concern for mom, his principal, and therapist Dr. Neblin. John's extracurricular interest in all things grisly and gruesome isn't abating anytime soon, either. Because lucky for him, unlucky for everyone else, John has a chance to investigate a serial murder mystery firsthand when his hometown in the heartland of Clayton County goes from snowy and sleepy to dangerous and deathly.
Someone is racking up a suddenly skyrocketing body count of drifters, barbers, mechanics, and policemen. Whoever is stirring this small town shock is taking limbs and organs from each victim, too. John expects his amateur experience in criminal profiling will give him an edge in uncovering the culprit. What he doesn't expect is that the murderous man he is pitting himself against may not be a man at all.
He sounds somewhat similar, but John Wayne Cleaver is definitely not Dexter Morgan. John wants to suppress his dark passenger, not indulge him, even if bad actions with good intentions might be morally ambiguous. Dr. Neblin's rules differ from Harry's code in that John's goal is to understand why his mind meanders toward abnormal curiosities involving corpses while everyone else his age is preoccupied with video games and school dances.
Max Records understates John's sociopathy, which is why his performance works well in creating a teen who seems typically troubled, not necessarily dangerously disturbed. It's a complex character devoid of empathy. But Records sells John as sympathetic by being carefully casual about his portrayal, reciting a silent internal monologue through natural expressions revealing far more about John’s personality than dialogue can.
Director Billy O'Brien has a clear vision of John's world. Extraordinary events are occurring regularly, though the fiction remains rooted in a surprisingly relatable reality. O'Brien achieves this by painting an easily identifiable portrait of middle class America and then letting sudden scares simply speak for themselves. When the first unanticipated shock comes, it hits like a hammer to the heart.
The camera is always unobtrusive. Movements play in wide angles, from behind shoulders, or in handheld shots avoiding undue attention. The feeling is that the camera organically adapts to action on the fly, rather than staging a setup and waiting for actors to hit preplanned marks. Allowing realism to breathe by not being beholden to predictable coverage gives the movie the scope of a major motion picture packaged with a natural look of independent film style. "I Am Not a Serial Killer" involves an almost unbelievable story with a supernatural twist, yet still comes across as unexpectedly authentic in tone.
I haven't read the source novel, but I'd bet Dan Wells' book is dense with subtext and subplots. The downside to this is the film adaptation has more material than it can use to full effectiveness. I'd make a second wager that a cut of the movie probably exists that is at least a full hour longer.
There is a great deal going on and O'Brien takes an admirable stab at paring the script down to essentials. "I Am Not a Serial Killer" simply runs out of room to assign equal weight onto every thread and some side stories stick out as "what about...?" casualties.
"I Am Not a Serial Killer" sags in its midsection after John's investigation draws a conclusion and then he effectively sits on the revelation with little movement for literally several movie months. The pace doesn't exactly spin its wheels during the lull, but backward beats become redundant. Part of the movie's appeal is its Midwestern melodrama. Except it is a narrative step in a reverse direction when the A story involves a seemingly unstoppable killer, and that plot regularly pauses to invite diminished interest in less urgent issues like a strained mother-daughter relationship or nonstarter romances.
Scripting occasionally loses sight of John's ongoing struggle against his own serial killer tendencies. That key trait doesn't always matter in telling the tale when his characterization fades from foreground to background. However, when the movie remains focused on the main meat of its escalating face off between John and the murderer, "I Am Not a Serial Killer" excels at cold eeriness and tight suspense.
Max Records somehow makes magnetism out of teen angst. And though it may be clichéd to say, this is co-star Christopher Lloyd like you've never seen him before. Lloyd flips an expectation of his often-comedic presence on its ear by managing to make the warmth of an elderly neighbor sinisterly chilling. Ice the cake with a terrific monster design from Toby Froud (fun fact: Toby Froud played the abducted infant in the David Bowie-starrer "Labyrinth") and "I Am Not a Serial Killer" combines dark family drama, creature feature, and serial killer thriller into one uniquely entertaining package.
Review Score: 80