I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016, dir. Billy O’Brien)
John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), a teenager with sociopathic tendencies, lives in a bleak Midwestern town, seemingly under a permanent blanket of snow. Against this wintery landscape, a series of killings begin. Cleaver gets a front row seat to examine the corpses due to his family’s prominence as the only mortuary in town. He quickly discovers each body is missing an internal organ or body part. The bodies also appear to have been cut apart with a chainsaw or toothed blade. And there’s that sizzling black oil at all the crime scenes. Cleaver struggles to control his own compulsions to hurt school bullies and the need to connect with others while trying to figure out whose sinister hand is behind the killings.
I did not expect what I got from this film. I knew going in from the atmospheric trailers that it was going to be moody and dark. There is plenty of gore due to the mortuary being a key location. We never see victim’s faces until more than halfway through the film. In many ways, this is from the perspective of Cleaver. He sees the bodies as simply hunks of meat at the beginning, parts of a mystery he wants to uncover. When the victims become people he personally knows the weight of the crimes set in.
Despite this darkness pervading the film, there is humor and softer moments. Cleaver frequently visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Neblin. Instead of Cleaver lying on a couch and unloading his feelings, the two meet in outdoor locations having sessions in a park or on a rooftop while birdwatching. The doctor comes across a very human and truly working to show empathy to the young man while attempting to stoke the fires of empathy in his patient. The family dynamics between Cleaver, his mother, aunt, and older sister feel very genuine with lots of tension around the holidays that the film knows it doesn’t have to get expository about.
The look of the film is grainy and textured. Handheld shots in moments of extreme horror and tension add to the despairing atmosphere of the crimes. It’s clear that slasher horror of the 70s and early 80s influenced the tone and visuals of the picture in all the most positive ways. The movie is also confident in letting itself wander through landscapes. There’s not hurry to wrap up the story. Instead story elements are allowed to simmer and we get some wonderful performances from young Max Records. His most notable role thus far has been as the lead in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s apparent that he understands emotion and subtlety and gives a very honest performance of a very troubled character. Cleaver is never presented as angsty, he’s contemplative and seeks understanding of his condition, even if it means communing with a killer.
There is a major twist halfway through the film that is not presented in any of the trailers I saw and should be avoided at all costs. The shock of what the film becomes in that moment was one of the best elements of the picture. The director manages to take elements that could be eye-rollingly ludicrous and add some emotional weight. If you are looking for a horror film that lives in the “real world” I Am Not a Serial Killer will do the trick.