I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER
Directed by Billy O’Brien
Screenplay by Billy O’Brien and Christopher Wells
Based on the novel by Dan Wells
Music by Adrian Johnston
Filmed on location in Minnesota
Few — okay, practically no one — will have had the opportunity to view this film on the big screen, unless they were at the South by Southwest Film Festival, London Film Festival, Toronto After Dark Film Festival, or any of the eleven high-profile film festivals where it appeared. I wish I had caught I Am Not A Serial Killer at a festival because, as good as it was streaming, I would have loved to see the 16mm cinematography in the theatre (no slur on you, little Mac), with its slightly rough look, instead of the super-slick blockbusters that roll in every weekend. Not just for the visuals, mind you, but because this film is better than most of them and, at least in the States, it made the festival circuit and scurried into Netflix. Being an Irish film, though only one Irish actor was able to use his own accent, it actually hit theatres in the Commonwealth and the UAE.
Between you and me, I think I’m the lucky one; just this once I didn’t read the synopsis carefully as I normally do. I gave the first part a glance and paid more attention to the young lead’s face and I was hooked. That saved me from reading a big plot point and seeing another on the most common posters. No spoilers, it was all twists for me. It was great. When I read the synopses and chose the poster for this review I was a bit piqued that so much was given away. So, just in case you haven’t been exposed to this already, here’s the usual promise: *I Don’t Do Spoilers!*
John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) has a few strikes against him: he lives in above the family business, which happens to be a funeral parlour; he is the high school “freak,” he lives in a very small town, and he has been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. He’s the town’s creepy sociopath. How very cool.
John’s therapist (Karl Geary) is very confident that between the two of them they can keep him from very harming anyone. So what if he’s still obsessed with serial killers. Good news! Now that he knows it’s wrong, John’s not torturing animals anymore. Even better news is that none of that behaviour is shown onscreen. John is less confident, but he has developed rituals to steer himself away from, you know, killing people when that feeling comes upon him. Even less convinced is John’s mother, who seems to be on the verge of her own personal breakdown at any moment.
Did no one think to tell this kid that some of the most successful people in this world are high-functioning sociopaths? You can’t swing an empty hedge fund without hit one in the world of finance. Politics is lousy with them. I’m just saying, they could point out some other career paths than future serial killer.
The bad news is, someone in their town didn’t get that little talk, because they definitely have a murderer in their midst. Unless more bodies show up, what they have is one pretty gory and weird killing where thing just don’t add up. Of course, John is there when the body of delivered to be prepped for the funeral and is instantly interested in the murder. But, it is just that one murder, so they don’t have– Okay. It’s a serial killer.
The plot is good. Even better if, like me, you don’t know more about it than that he is trying to fight his internal urges and defeat a serial killer preying on his neighbours. And, it’s got a great low-key feel that films dealing with this subject matter never seem to reach for, much less hit. This isn’t a slasher film or one of those shadow-and-light thrillers that usually stars the hot actress of the moment, this is a thoughtful look at what it is like growing up with that diagnosis and fear. It’s facing an uncertain future in a town where there aren’t a lot of advanced centers to go to for discrete treatment. What it boils down to, is a story about a boy who is different and how he is going to handle a very different situation.
None of this would have worked without the right John Wayne Cleaver. The producers didn’t get the right one with Max Records, they got one better than they could ever reasonably hoped to find. If he looks a bit familiar, think back to that little face in Where the Wild Things Are. He hasn’t taken on a lot of roles, probably because he was only twelve when he made that film and, in the seven years since, he probably has been doing growing-up things. As an adult he looks ready to step into any role he sets his sights on and do an amazing job. Records’ John was in my classes in junior high and senior high school. He wasn’t in any of the cliques, but he didn’t give a shit and that made him interesting. There were some of us square pegs in high school who nobody disliked, we just didn’t belong to any group. Shave off the sociopathy and John would have been one of us.
John roams the streets by day and night, watching for the serial killer, catching a scent early when the police have no clue. Literally no clue. What John intends to do when he pins down the identity of the murderer is the big question and Records play that ambiguity brilliantly. Intentions, reactions, and internal struggle play out across his face like clouds in time-lapse photography. Red eyes, often brimming with tears, and cherry lips stand out against his winter-pale face and emphasise every expression. Forget that psychiatric diagnosis; he is the one the audience worries for, not about, throughout the film. Even when it isn’t clear what his intentions are, he seems so incredibly…breakable, and that is what Records does. It’s what makes me hungry to see his next performance, whatever it is.
See? No spoilers. In fact, you may be thinking I left things out, if you paid more attention to the promo material. Eh. Better the way I watched I Am Not A Serial Killer and if you can some to it that way, too? So much the better. Then, there will be some surprises ahead. LIke me, you’ll go back and look at some lines more literally. And, you’re really going to say something like, what the hell? but in a good way.