‘I Am Not a Serial Killer’: SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW Film Festival
Treads familiar ground with minor variations.

A troubled teen attempts to suppress his darkest urges while pursuing a merciless murderer preying on a helpless community in Billy O’Brien’s third feature.

Blending genres with somewhat inconsistent results, I Am Not a Serial Killer wants to be a forensic procedural, horror movie and black comedy all at once. Chiefly it’s an understated thriller about the evil lurking beneath the skin of the American heartland, where so many psychopaths have preyed upon the populace over the decades. Genre fans should respond if the film eventually turns up on VOD, following assured appearances at like-minded film festivals.

This adaptation of the first entry in a young adult series by novelist Dan Wells reminds us that adolescence is rarely an easy period, especially if you’re a self-diagnosed sociopath like John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records). As the son of single-mother mortician April (Laura Fraser), he’s completely self-absorbed with homicidal inclinations due to his perceived pathology. Perhaps it’s all the hanging around with corpses in the mortuary and assisting with embalming sessions that promote his self-questioning, but John is pretty convinced he has all the necessary traits to become a serial killer. He should know, since he obsessively researches the careers of murderers like Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer and Dennis Rader, the “BTK” killer. In order to keep his potentially antisocial tendencies in check, John adopts compulsive behavioral traits he feels will prevent him from succumbing to his dark side.

However, a series of killings in his small Wisconsin city convinces him that there’s a psychopath on the loose, if he can just gather enough clues to track down the perpetrator. Actually, the murderer is leaving quite a few clues, beginning with ripping out internal organs from his victims and disappearing with them, raising John’s concerns about the vulnerability of his family and neighbors, including cute classmate Brooke (Lucy Lawton) and frail, elderly Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) living across the street. His suspicions settle on a variety of locals, but when John’s investigation reveals the true identity and depravity of the murderer, he’s suddenly unsure whether he has the skill and courage to derail the ongoing rampage, or if the killer will get to him first.

O’Brien and co-writer Chris Hyde begin by establishing John’s outsider status: Obsessed by death, bullied at school and shunned by his peers, he’s an isolated young man spending way too much time on twisted self-reflection. Once he gets on the trail of the killer, the film shifts into procedural mode, even as the narrative treads shakier ground, unable to establish why law enforcement appears to be nearly absent and remarkably incompetent, or how nearly a half-dozen murders can take place in close proximity of one another without any witnesses noticing. When John finally learns the macabre details behind the perpetrator’s killing spree, the movie morphs into a black comedy before concluding on a strangely supernatural note.

This inconsistency of tone isn’t nearly as distracting as the plotlines and characters that are impulsively introduced and then swiftly neglected. Although John’s psychological quirks are examined in detail, many other characters are barely sketched in. Records, who’s matured into a teenager since his childhood roles in The Brothers Bloom and Where the Wild Things Are, exhibits a certain persuasive sensitivity that engenders more empathy than the writers’ heavy-handed abnormal-psych characterizations. Lloyd digs deep into a dimensional role that only reaches full potential late in the film, revealing a gratifyingly physical performance underpinned by complex motivational factors.

U.K.-based Irish director O’Brien, whose previous features Isolation and The Hybrid play on more explicit types of body-horror than the psychological self-repulsion John experiences here, displays a better command of visual style than narrative tone. Shepherding the shoot through a snowy Midwestern winter (the film is actually an Ireland-U.K. co-production), O’Brien converts the nondescript town into a menacingly lit labyrinth as John attempts to track and trap the mysterious killer, pursued by a frequently prowling camera. The special effects are consistently satisfying for a low-budget feature, reaching a surprising level of accomplishment in the final scenes.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production companies: Floodland Pictures, The Tea Shop and Film Company
Cast: Christopher Lloyd, Max Records, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Christina Baldwin, Lucy Lawton
Director: Billy O’Brien
Screenwriters: Billy O’Brien, Chris Hyde
Producers: Nick Ryan, James Harris, Mark Lane
Executive producers: Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, James Atherton, Jan Pace, Afolabi Kuti, John McDonnell, Billy O'Brien, Ruairi Robinson,  Rory Gilmartin, Avril Daly, Robbie Ryan, Bertrand Faivre, Ruth Kenley-Letts
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Jennifer Klide
Costume designer: Deborah Fiscus
Editor: Nick Emerson
Music: Adrian Johnson
Casting director: Kirsten Gregerson

Not rated, 103 minutes