I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016) – Movie Review
I Am Not a Serial Killer
Directed by: Billy O’Brien
Written by: Christopher Hyde & Billy O’Brien
Starring: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser & Karl Geary
Music: Adrian Johnston
Release Date: December 9th 2016
Serial Killers are considered a fascinating subject for storytelling. After the two world wars in the first half of the 20th Century, Western Countries had seen devastation and death firsthand so murder was not considered such a taboo subject and fiction detailing serial killers started to become increasingly popular. It always had a place in fiction, but as communication and knowledge became easier to access (not to mention news outlets were able to capitalise on real life events) serial killer stories, both fiction and non-fiction became increasingly popular.
Which leads us to author Dan Wells’ 2009 novel “I Am Not A Serial Killer”, a young-adult book detailing how a teenager could become a killer. This film adaptation, made with an incredibly low budget from indie horror director Billy O’Brien, hopes to explain what drives a normal person to commit multiple murders. But is it successful at depicting such a disturbed mind or is this subject matter unable to be properly grasped?
John Cleaver (Records) is a teenager living in North Dakota. He works at his mother’s funeral home business and he’s been diagnosed as a sociopath and regularly goes to a therapist in order to control his most violent impulses. These are exacerbated when a serial killer strikes in his small town and as the bodies begin to pile up, John decides to investigate the killings himself which leads to him suspecting his elderly neighbour Bill Crowley (Lloyd) and starts to discover a mystery that he may not even begin to be able to fully comprehend.
For those of you wanting a grounded, down-to-earth look at serial killers and the insight into what creates one, ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer‘ might not satisfy your cravings, but that’s predominantly because it’s a film all about metaphors and it takes supernatural turns that seems to go against the subject matter it’s trying to represent. After all, serial killers aren’t actually non-human entities but any human could have the capacity for it. This isn’t a criticism against ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer‘, it’s just a case of re-framing the movie to try and get under the surface of what it’s trying to get across.
The protagonist John is the emotional anchor of the film as he’s all-too aware of his own dark inhibitions. He researches serial killers, he does college reports on serial killers and he’s able to even scare away his bullies by being a nutcase. But he’s afraid of himself and his impulses which could manifest themselves in even more macabre ways. Considering his sociopathy and his inability to have a substantial emotional connection with anyone, even his own mother, it speaks to the skill of Max Records as an actor (remember him as the kid from ‘Where The Wild Things Are‘ back in 2009?) that he’s able to be a sympathetic and endearing lead.
Also giving a great performance is Christopher Lloyd as John’s old, sincere but also pretty creepy neighbour Billy who may know what is going on, but I won’t be spoiling anything here. We don’t get to see Christopher Lloyd that often anymore in an actual dramatic role and he’s still a brilliant and unique screen presense here. At once both funny and awkward but also really unnerving this veteran of the screen still has some life left in him in a career standout performance.
But going back to John, when the killings start to happen he decides to investigate. Not out of some moral duty or a need to do right, but to figure out who the killer is for his own sake. In a way, he wants to know what type of person the killer is to know if he is the type of monster he fears himself to be. Unfortunately, the film cops out at the end not only by making the ultimate threat something that John can’t even process or relate to meaning the metaphor falls pretty flat, but the place John ends up at the end of the film doesn’t feel congruent with the events and actions he took to get there. Basically, how did John’s actions near the end of the film get him to that end mental place?
This also goes to some further issues towards the mid-point of the film when John starts to realise the scale of what’s happening and what he’s dealing with but he doesn’t call the police to any effective degree. The police are called at one point, but he doesn’t give them any information to actually help. When the plot can be stopped by doing something any reasonable person in John’s situation would naturally do in real life, that’s a big issue and it’s a contrivance which looms over the rest of the film and is very hard to shake off. We also have the main character doing very questionable things in the second half which gets a lot of people close to him either hurt or killed but they were so easily prevented.
A film’s internal logic doesn’t have to be perfect in a film driven by emotions and metaphors but there’s definitely a limit and personally, ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer‘ passed those limits numerous times.
The film’s 3rd act also goes from macabre drama with sprinklings of gallows humour into a more conventional horror film and the horror doesn’t really land. The jumps aren’t effective and the cinematography doesn’t adequately adapt to the genre change making its attempts at scares feel rather limp. But those first two acts are engaging to sit through and the contrast between John and the killer he’s trying to track down in how they’re completely at odds with each other emotionally gives the film a surprisingly warm heart…before the serial killer rips it out and replaces it with really bad CGI tar.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses 16mm film stock to great effect here with its grainy quality giving it the superficial trappings of a 1970s horror film (along with Adrian Johnson’s John Carpenter inspired musical score) but it’s a thematic fit as well. The film grain almost acts like a suffocating fog as John tries to find something exciting and something he connects with in a muted and stifling town that cannot understand him and even fears him. Despite the film’s low budget there’s a lot of atmosphere to the location filming, the tar in the snow is a striking visual image and while the 3rd act doesn’t do well with its transition to horror and the CGI is very poorly implemented, it’s still an effective, moody production.
‘I Am Not A Serial Killer‘ gets a lot right and has an interesting dynamic at its core between the lead and the villain but there’s a lot of questionable narrative hang-ups that drag you kicking and screaming out of what is otherwise a well-shot and atmospheric low-budget thriller. The lead performances are strong even if the supporting cast leaves minimal impact and we need to take more time as a collective to appreciate Christopher Lloyd in a role like this, but this is a film that’ll mainly resonate with genre-completionists as opposed to people who want a truly definitive insight into what drives us to commit the worst of crimes.
I give ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 3rd Dec 17