Existing at the crossroads between Let the Right One In and Under the Skin, director Billy O’Brien’s new film, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a coming-of-age horror movie about what it means to be human. This is the kind of movie about which the less is said, the better, making it difficult to summarize its plot and even, in some cases, to argue for its strengths. So much of what O’Brien does right is in the service of the movie’s themes, which it would be unfair to fully reveal in a review. That can make talking about the film in any detailed way a challenge, but I can at least say this: it is a movie you absolutely have to see. Take my word for it.
Based on Dan Wells’ 2009 novel of the same name and having recently screened at Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival in Chicago, I Am Not a Serial Killer stars Max Records (of Where the Wild Things Are) as John Wayne Cleaver, a high schooler clinically diagnosed as a sociopath who has to work every day from giving into the impulses that he knows could one day turn him into a killer. When a series of murders takes place in his small town—each with a different body part missing, presumably kept as a trophy—John launches his own investigation into the killer’s identity. What he learns may surprise him.
Gorgeously photographed on 16mm film with a subdued, ’70s-era drabness, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a film that mutes its emotions, its visuals, practically everything about its formal construction, not only because it creates an effectively gray, somber mood, but because it serves a thematic purpose. The world John observes is one drained of color, of life. It is only when the murders start that a spark is ignited within him and things begin to make sense—that is, until they don’t. The film cleverly avoids what is expected of it in every way, including what would typically be a gradual teasing of information. Screenwriters O’Brien and Christopher Hyde are much happier to drop a bomb in our laps and then dissect the grue that sticks to the walls as a result.
Dissection is a recurring theme in I Am Not a Serial Killer, from the job John holds at the family mortuary to the murder’s predilection for removing and keeping various body parts. It’s all in the service of studying the human body to better understand it. How does it work? What keeps it alive? Is it only a matter of biological systems, or is it something greater? I know this all makes the movie sound like 100 minutes of philosophical ruminating, but it isn’t that. It is gorgeous and moody, creepy and engaging, often darkly funny and entertaining from start to finish. That there are much deeper ideas at work is just what separates I Am Not a Serial Killer from being a movie that’s very good to one that’s great.
Following the film’s reception at SXSW this year, the performance by Christopher Lloyd as John’s amiable, elderly neighbor was being praised as his career best. That’s a bold claim when speaking about the same guy who gave us both Reverend Jim and Doctor Emmett Brown, but there’s certainly an argument to be made for his work here: he’s sweet and sensitive, scary and sad in equal measure.
Equally good, however, is Max Records, who hasn’t made a ton of movies, but who has demonstrated each time out that he’s one of the best young actors of his age group. The trick of Records’ great performance is that he’s able to convey just what is being felt by a character who is, by all accounts, dead inside. He’s a kid faking his way through life to avoid standing out as something “other”—a human who has to pretend at being human. In every scene, Records lets the audience see behind the eyes of a young man who supposedly has nothing behind his eyes. It’s an incredible piece of acting.
I’ve had to talk around a lot of what makes I Am Not a Serial Killer great for fear of spoiling its secrets. Hopefully, though, I’ve still conveyed just what a strong film this is. Gorgeously constructed, expertly acted, and consistently surprising, the movie manages to spin a tale of sociopaths and murder into something genuinely moving and resonant. I Am Not a Serial Killer is receiving a limited theatrical release from IFC Midnight and will be available on iTunes and VOD streaming platforms beginning August 26th. Don’t let it pass you by. This is one of the best movies of the year.
Movie Score: 4.5/5