Starring Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Max Records, Karl Geary
Directed by Billy O’Brien
Screened at Mayhem 2016
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Dan Wells, Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer focuses on recently-diagnosed teenage sociopath John Wayne Cleaver (Records). The son of a small-town funeral home operator, John’s obsession with serial killers and consistently aloof behaviour means he’s something of a social outcast in a community where reputation and gossip spread quickly.
Yet he’s mostly fine with that – it means he has to put a little less effort into following the personally-developed rules of behaviour he uses to keep his urges under control and prevent him from harming others.
When mutilated bodies begin to turn up around town, John’s the first to notice the common thread of missing organs. Suspecting there’s a genuine serial killer on the scene, John leads his own investigation – which soon points to his kindly elderly neighbour, Mr. Crowley (Lloyd). As a game of cat and mouse commences between the two, it becomes apparent that far from just a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, Mr. Crowley may actually be something else entirely…
A mash-up of serial killer thriller and monster movie, I Am Not a Serial Killer has a surprisingly fresh feel to it. O’Brien’s setting recalls the kind of down-home vibe of the likes of Fargo, feeding the intimacy of John’s central struggle. And this is primarily a story about him more than anything – both his internal battle against his own urges and tendencies, and his outward one with the monstrous entity he seeks to save his town from. A coming-of-age by way of murderous inclination, John’s efforts to define himself in the face of his psychological diagnosis drive the story – his resolve to avoid the supposedly predetermined course of a sociopath leading him to quite literally go toe-to-toe with that which he sorely does not wish to become.
Max Records is the stand-out cast member here, bringing visible layers of nuance, confusion and frustration to John’s internal turmoil. His aloofness is likeable even if his emotional distance and snarky retorts to others’ concerns seem unhelpful on the face of it, and there’s always a sense of the effort John is putting in within himself.
Yet despite the ease with which the audience is brought on-side with John, Records always manages to keep his more disturbing undercurrent alive – you’re never quite sure whether his spying on neighbours, for example, is an attempt to mine elements of emotional attachment he simply can’t grasp, or a more worrying sort of stalker dry run. Perhaps it’s both.
Next to Records stands acting legend Christopher Lloyd, whose initially bright personality and frailty slowly give way to something much darker and – crucially – convincingly dangerous. The full “into the light” revelation of this evil is given disappointingly little screen time – saved primarily for a quick-run climax – but Lloyd’s presence is powerful throughout.
Pacing issues do see the film become unnecessarily slow around the mid-point, settling into ponderously-presented conversations that lack pep – a side effect, perhaps, of John’s intrinsic disinterest in general affairs, but something that stands out in a negative light nonetheless. The ending revelation, too, may come from too far out of left field for some, frustrating with its lack of insight into exactly just what we’re dealing with here – but just go along with it and you’ll find plenty to appreciate in this off-kilter offering.