I Am Not A Serial Killer  – A Unique, Nuanced Take on a Familiar Storyline
Director Billy O’ Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016) is based on Dan Wells’ first novel (released in 2009) in his YA series. Billy O’ Brien after reading the novel in 2009 bought the rights for the film. Alas, due to horrors of indie film-making, it has taken him more than six years to complete the project. The movie has the charming ingredients of an off-beat coming-of-age film. There’s a thin, lank-haired teen named John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) living with single mother who literally has no friends. He lives in a small American Midwestern Town where nothing much happens. Then typical sullen phase of adolescence is mixed with gruesome horrific elements. John’s mother April (Laura Fraser) runs funeral home with her sister Margaret (Christina Baldwin). John often helps his morgue technician mother and so he has a very practical view of bodies. The little twist here is that John has been diagnosed with sociopathy and is already seeing a therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary).
John isn’t so uncomfortable with the diagnosis. He employs a few set of rules to keep the normalcy and drain the killing urge. Nevertheless, for John the clinical detachment with his mother and others is widening at a faster rate. Soon, his town is beset by series of murders (body parts are strewn around). John has perfect view of what’s been done to the bodies in the mortuary. By projecting his obsession for serial killers, John takes it upon himself to list out possible suspects from the small town. He does stumble on to the killer, catching him on the act. John couldn’t believe that the man who is as feeble as he appears to be is committing these terrifying acts. His attempts to restrain the man totally fail and so John gets closer to find out the man’s darkest secret.
I Am Not A Serial Killer doesn’t make a big twist out of killer’s identity. It’s revealed half-an-hour into the movie. So, the narrative (co-written Christopher Hyde) takes a very naturalistic character-driven approach. In the era of Dexter and Six Feet Under, there’s not much originality in the story. But, the basic conflict is brilliantly realized. On one hand, there’s a teen unable to feel love, yet suppressing his psycopathic urge. On the other hand, there’s a man who is immensely capable of showing love chooses to give into blood lust. In John’s pursuit for the killer, we see further conflicts too. John tries to halt the killer’s progress and he’s also fighting against the disorder that’s affecting him from within. Visually and story wise, John’s predicament reflects the disorder of George A Romero’s protagonist in 1977 drama Martin (his urge was not just killing, but to drink human blood). Martin was also set in a small Mid Western American town with shabby streets. Director Billy O’ Brien pays homage to the 1970s horror films set in small town through by shooting it on 16 mm, diffusing a wonderful grainy texture.
An idiosyncratic dry tone helps the film to stand apart from the similar kind of works. There are quite a few absurdly funny situations within the serious drama. For example, John’s attempts to stop the killer only worsen the situation for himself and others. The discussion between John and his mother about Dr. Neblin was also a fine humorous sequence. Even though the killer’s identity is revealed earlier, the film doesn’t become a regular cat-and-mouse thriller. Instead, there’s more of subtle drama than edge-of-seat developments, which demands some patience on the viewer’s part. We experience the mortality and vulnerability of a man who is otherwise a murderous monster. Director Billy O’ Brien was at his best in visualizing the calmness and ferocity of the serial killer. He personifies the man’s beastly nature by setting him on soulless, snow-drenched landscape or through framing of intimidating car. The final act may fascinate some and annoy some. The sudden turn into the supernatural realm didn’t feel so satisfying (don’t know if it better fitted in the novel). It neither felt to be part of the narrative (although there were few suggestions) nor seemed to perfectly fit with wry, eerie tone.
The majestic performances of the cast add a lot to the movie’s ambivalent tone. Max Records (played the central role in Spike Jonze’s Where Wild Things Are) doesn’t take a black-and-white approach to showcase his characters’ sociopathic and humane tendencies. He subtly makes us see the thin layer that’s separating him to fall from one side to the other. Records is not only good at emoting in the key scenes, but also graceful in exhibiting John’s lack of emotions. Veteran actor Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future), who usually plays genial, eccentric characters, is cast against type. And, the actor delivers a masterful performance, playing a man succumbing to his fate. While Mr. Lloyd’s loudness energized us in the past, his calmness in this film was equally dreadful to behold. He impeccably guides us through the layers of personality hidden beneath the friendly, weak outer surface. The supporting actors have finely underplayed their roles, especially Laura Fraser as protective mother.
I Am Not A Serial Killer (104 minutes) is a thoroughly engaging, ambivalent drama that smartly blends in YA themes with darker & incisive themes. The subtle performances and the strangely tender tone amidst the brutal violence will possibly elevate this indie film to a cult favorite.