In a small Midwestern town, a troubled teen with homicidal tendencies must hunt down and destroy a supernatural killer whilst keeping his own inner demons at bay.
Fifteen-year-old John Cleaver (Max Records, of Where the Wild Things Are) is your classic angst-filled loner male. Stuck in his own head, out of step with society, and potentially dangerous, he's the type epitomised by Scorsese's Taxi Driver and rehashed ad nauseam by young filmmakers ever since. The world John inhabits is a claustrophobic Midwestern suburbia rather than a big city but his dilemma is as Holden Caulfield-esque as you might imagine: What kind of person am I? What does 'morality' mean to me? So far, so uninspired. On paper, it's not exactly a mind-blowing set-up.
Yet I Am Not A Serial Killer crafts something fresh from these familiar elements. Born of the unlikely union of American young adult literature (a popular 2009 novel by Dan Wells) and Irish independent filmmaking (it was funded in part by the Irish Film Board), this is a finely calibrated gem of an indie genre flick. Billy O'Brien, whose previous feature credit is the 2005 horror film Isolation, directs with modest virtuosity (he also co-wrote the script, along with Christopher Hyde). Robbie Ryan's superb 16mm cinematography evokes a very creepy atmosphere, yet there's an oddly warm, humanist sensibility to its dimly lit tableaus. Tonally, I Am Not A Serial Killer harks back to American filmmaking of the 1970s (the story is possibly set in the 1990s, although this is difficult to pinpoint), with the use of verite-style handheld, a sickly colour pallet and a sombre, unsensational approach to its thriller storyline.
"Rich visual style, subversive sense of humour and a pretty good twist. Nothing less than a cult classic in the making."
John Cleaver is not one of those witty movie teenagers who feel like 35 year-olds; he's your garden variety depressed teen. But his big problem is far from typical. In addition to being bullied at school, having very few friends and being brought up in a single-parent home that's also a working funeral parlour, his great fear is that he may grow up to be a serial killer. He knows he has many of the reported predictors (bedwetting, pyromania and cruelty to animals, apparently) and has become obsessed with researching serial killers. On one level, it's ridiculous. John clearly knows that John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy are monstrous and he doesn't want to emulate them. And yet his full name is John Wayne Cleaver, he's obsessed with death and even his therapist (played winningly by Irish actor Karl Geary) reckons he is a sociopath. He certainly has a lot of pent-up anger that might lead to violence, as is shown in a scene where he reacts badly to his absentee father's poor choice of Christmas present.
The point then is how to cheat this fate. As John's therapist says: “Predictors are just that; they predict what might happen, not what will happen. You're in control of your own destiny.” Like a macabre version of Harriet the Spy, he embarks on a nerdy quest to understand himself. Accordingly, the serial killer idea emerges as a metaphor (in that sense, George Romero's Martin is brought to mind). The teenage years are a time when both body and personality are changing rapidly, evoking much anxiety both in the victim of this phenomenon and in those around him. At the same time, without getting into spoilers, some decidedly non-metaphorical shit also hits the fan for our young (anti)hero. John is tested, and must fight for what he ultimately decides he believes in.
Fundamentally though, this is coming-of-age story about a boy and the people closest to him: his mother (played sympathetically by Scottish actor Laura Fraser), his therapist, and his next door neighbour, the affable and very odd Mr Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). Interestingly, it's John's relationships with adults that seem to most affect him, even though he does have a sister close in age and a “best friend” of sorts. Perhaps this is only natural given his preoccupations. Personality-wise, he's a profoundly non-childish child; unless you consider how seriously he takes himself a sign of immaturity.
But it's the relationship between Crowley and John that's at the heart of the story, and it's a compelling one – in large part due to Lloyd's charismatic and intelligent performance. If, like me, you've seen little of him on screen since his Back to the Future days, you've been missing out. Indeed, the cast is uniformly excellent. Add to that I Am Not A Serial Killer's rich visual style, its subversive sense of humour and a pretty good twist (the less you know about the plot beforehand the better, but it should work either way) and the results are impressive. This is nothing less than a cult classic in the making.