Best of 2016: I Am Not a Serial Killer

ianask_quad_art5There’s blood, guts and plenty of heart in this oddball black comedy based on Dan Wells’ successful YA novel

Young John Wayne Cleaver is not a serial killer – yet. But he knows he’s at high risk of becoming one, and not just because of that magnificently appropriate name of his. He exhibits all of the classic warning signs: he’s obsessed by death and dead bodies, something which is not helped by his family business being a funeral parlour, where the corpses are embalmed in a small underground chamber; he enjoys torturing small animals; he lacks empathy and has difficulty in establishing and maintaining personal relationships; he’s fascinated by the details of historical serial killers; and he frequently suffers from violent urges (“You are about as important to me as a cardboard box”, he tells a bullying tormentor, “pretty boring on the outside. But sometimes when you cut them open, there’ll be something interesting inside”). But he doesn’t want to end up becoming a killer, so he’s seeing a therapist who helps him to remember that warning signs are just that, and his destiny is his own. From what we can tell, he’s doing quite well – until a serial killer shows up in town. Equally repulsed and excited, he starts sleuthing, breaking the personal rules that keep him safe from himself, and in no time at all he winds up hot on the killer’s trail while the police are still floundering. He’s part-Harriet the Spy, part-Dexter. But he may be in above his head, because the killer he’s stalking makes his beloved Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers look utterly mundane.

And from there the plot plays out over a series of pleasantly surprising beats. A genuinely unpredictable film narrative is a rare thing; genre classification surely has as much to do with story structure as it has with setting or themes, and I Am Not A Serial Killer’s narrative would surely have settled into a type of familiar, routine plot had it ever made a definitive choice between the various genres from which it draws: small-town drama, high-school comedy, coming-of-age story, whodunit, supernatural horror, and the type of pseudo-realistic serial-killer operas that tend to get unhelpfully labelled “psychological thriller” (The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, the aforementioned Dexter). As it is, it’s a weirdo success in the vein of Donnie Darko, and fully deserves to become the same sort of sleeper hit. In that, it has an advantage in being based on one of those popular “YA” novels that nowadays all seem to revolve around serial killers and rape and torture and war and kidnappings and two-page-long descriptions of dogs getting run over (this last one is really real; my preteen sister read it aloud to me, whereupon I lost my lunch). But it’s what the kids want, and who’s to argue? Despite its often intense gore, the film has a “15” rating here in the UK, which makes its box office mostly open to the target audience of the novel, while those slightly under have the option either of sneaking in or finding a sympathetic older sibling or friend. Not that the film ever comes across as a teen movie; it’s merely one with a teen protagonist.

At that, he’s a teen played convincingly by the improbably-named Max Records; surely a music label and not a person, but there you are. Max formerly starred in Where the Wild Things Are as a kid, and now he’s playing a wild thing himself. In looks and in approach, he’s like a skinnier, more sympathetic Caleb Landry Jones. His teenage contemporaries have the ring of authenticity to them too, because they are played by actual young people rather than the flawless-skinned, mid-twenties adults that are the Hollywood standard. These include a nerdy, but basically normal, best friend and a flirtatious would-be love interest who, despite displaying some charm, is basically ignored by our protagonist in another of the film’s customary upsets of convention. She never gets to get close to him, let alone provide for him a sort of saviour figure from his inner darkness. And after all, why should she? The closest parallel to this relationship is Magnus von Horn’s difficult, melancholy The Here After, but that film is very different in tone, motive, and specifics. The casting choice generating the most interest, though, is Christopher Lloyd – Professor Plum in the sadly underappreciated Clue and Emmet “Doc” Brown in the deservedly celebrated Back to the Future – as John’s elderly, unassuming neighbour Crowley (naming choices here, as you’ve clocked, are not subtle). He’s brilliant here, too, but what else did you expect?

Horror director Billy O’Brien, only on his third feature, delivers well and then some, particularly in the quietly menacing scenes Records and Lloyd share, but he is equally happy with some of the merry Hell that comes later on, and the appropriately operatic finale is, well, appropriately operatic. Paradoxically, the film’s occasional weaknesses, which are mostly structural, comes from its very uniqueness. As a detective story it has a suspect pool of one, which means viewers are far ahead of young John as he engages in his sleuthing in the first third, and between him discovering the killer’s identity and properly confronting them there is rather a lot of narrative slack. Some of this is picked up by character development, but since John never truly relates to any of the film’s other characters, it makes it that much more difficult for his feelings to be conveyed to the audience; any supporting character is lucky if they get two prominent scenes. Perhaps more interaction between him and his therapist might have given the picture slightly more weight. But it tells a compelling, original story with no lack of style or moody atmosphere, and only a slight lack of depth, and that in itself is more than enough reason to pay it attention. As a matter of fact, as I write this I’m frustrated that I can’t watch it two more times; once for the sake of this review, and at least once more just for its own enjoyment.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is one of Rumsey’s picks of the best films of the year. Check back at the end of the year for our top ten list!

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