'The Clovehitch Killer': Film Review | LAFF 2018

Courtesy of LA Film Festival
Too ambivalent to convincingly represent this perennial crime genre.

Duncan Skiles’ sophomore feature is a serial murder mystery starring Dylan McDermott and Charlie Plummer.

More reliant on atmosphere than action to build suspense, Duncan Skiles’ The Clovehitch Killer offers an intriguing perspective on the darker side of American values, but lacks the conviction to entirely expose the cultural contradictions that often enable compulsive murderers. IFC Midnight will skip the Halloween crush and release the film Nov. 16, which might do more to attract indie film enthusiasts for what’s likely to be a fairly modest opening.

Life in a small town can be like living in a fishbowl sometimes, especially when everyone in high school thinks you’re a total perv. That’s the reality facing boy scout Tyler (Charlie Plummer) after sneaking his dad’s truck out one night to park and make out with a cute classmate. Everything’s going great until she discovers a photo of a semi-nude, bound woman torn from a magazine under the front seat.

Next day, the rumors spread so quickly through school that even perennial outsider Kassi (Madisen Beaty) gets wind of his unsavory new reputation. And that’s not the sort of attention Tyler is looking for, since she’s widely known for her attempts to unmask the Clovehitch Killer, named after the signature knot he’s left at the scenes of 10 bondage-style murders of women in the vicinity of their small Kentucky town.

Tyler’s very public social comedown is all a bit difficult for him to reconcile, since his parents are devoted Christians and his dad Don’s (Dylan McDermott) position as a scout leader means that Tyler rarely escapes his father’s watchful gaze. Exactly how observant they really are remains a bit vague, however, since they’re pretty clueless about how to use the communal family laptop and find the alerts from Tyler’s flip phone endlessly annoying. 

If scouting has taught Tyler anything, though, it’s that some skills can be adapted for more clandestine activities, allowing him to break into Don’s backyard shed, where he discovers a hidden stash of bondage pornography. He also finds one stray Polaroid pic with a scribbled note: “Nora –– Lucky’s favorite.” Following a hunch, Tyler reluctantly turns to Kassi to share her background on the Clovehitch Killer from the case files she’s been developing during her own investigation. Together, they start piecing together clues from the old crime scenes that shed additional light on Tyler’s initial suspicion that his dad may somehow be associated with the notorious serial killer, even though it’s been a decade since the last murder.

Much like their suspect, the filmmakers make some missteps along the way to a chilling conclusion. Most noticeably, they choose to ignore the failure of local, state and federal law enforcement to develop any leads from 10 murders committed within a fairly short time frame, particularly since later developments demonstrate that the killer isn’t particularly methodical.

This persistent lack of crime-scene evidence diminishes the urgency involved with solving the cold cases, which apparently only interest a lone teen sleuth, rather than regional FBI agents who should still be searching for the perp. As a result, the filmmakers struggle to overcome the narrative’s initial inertia, relying on a series of overly coincidental plot developments before starting to trickle out any actual leads around the midpoint. 

Much of the tension that develops in the early going involves Tyler’s increasingly oppositional relationship with his strict scout-master father. Most of this back and forth involves Don’s pointed lectures about being a good Christian and loyal son. Once he begins to suspect that Tyler may be profiling him, though, his demeanor becomes more ambiguous, even threatening.

Plummer (Lean on Pete) provides some nice character shading for Tyler, who’s a bit of a blank slate beyond his boy-scout identity until he latches onto the serial killer investigation, shedding his shyness in favor of focused intensity. He’s outmatched by Beaty (Outlaws and Angels) as the teen investigator with a terrible secret, however, particularly when Kassi starts manipulating Tyler’s fascination with her to unearth new clues. Compared to the kids, McDermott faces a major likability gap, which he skillfully exploits as Don becomes increasingly isolated and paranoid.

Cop Car (and Spider-Man: Homecoming) screenwriter Christopher Ford invests a good deal of screen time in character development, presumably with the expectation that it will pay off with the film’s gritty conclusion. Attempts to craft an all-American suburban nightmare scenario along the lines of Twin Peaks can’t quite overcome the slow-moving plot, though, dragging on the movie’s pace when it should be picking up.

Skiles (The Last of the Great Romantics), shifting away from a series of comedy and shortform projects, knows what he’s going for, but doesn’t bring sufficient menace to bear when characterizing the obsessive killer. It’s a missed opportunity that diminishes the impact of his otherwise compelling perspective on the everyday evil that may lurk below the surface of any ordinary small town.

Production company: End Cue
Distributor: IFC Midnight 
Cast: Dylan McDermott, Charlie Plummer, Samantha Mathis, Madisen Beaty
Director: Duncan Skiles
Screenwriter: Christopher Ford
Producers: Andrew Kortschak, Cody Ryder, Walter Kortschak
Executive producers: Emily Wiedemann, Marcia Kortschak, Munika Lay
Director of photography: Luke McCoubrey
Production designer: Latisha Duarte
Costume designer: Jami Villers Duarte
Editors: Megan Brooks, Andrew Hasse
Music: Matt Veligdan
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival

110 minutes