I Am Not A Serial Killer (2016)

I Am Not A Serial Killer first published by RealCrime Magazine

“John, you have a lot of predictors for serial killer behaviour, but predictors are just that: they predict what might happen, not what will happen. You’re in control of your destiny. You’re a good person, John.”

With these words, psychotherapist Dr Neblin (Karl Geary) tries to reassure his patient John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), who is a clinically diagnosed sociopath with some dangerous appetites. Caught on the cusp of adolescent change, John is not so sure about either his goodness or his destiny. His handle is certainly an ambiguous predictor of his future: the actor John Wayne played all-American characters who conformed, broadly, to a (Republican) heroic ideal, but when placed in front of a third appellation, the names ‘John’ and ‘Wayne’ evoke the notorious mass murderer John Wayne Gacy; meanwhile the surname Cleaver is associated both with the wholesome family featured in suburban sit-com Leave it to Beaver (1957-63), and with a slasher’s weapon. John, it seems, could go either way.

In the Midwestern town of Clayton, John helps his divorced mother (Laura Fraser) embalm corpses in the mortuary of their Family Funeral Home, while showing an unhealthy fascination with the cadavers’ insides. Lacking empathy or affect, John struggles to keep in check his own dark fixations and homicidal tendencies, even as someone else begins ripping townspeople apart and stealing their organs. John is quick to work out the identity of the killer, but remains uncertain whether he should be playing cat and mouse with him, stopping him dead, or following in his footsteps. 

Records is best known for his rôle in Where the Wild Things Are (2009) as Max, a young boy who conjures monsters on which to project his own emotional conflicts. Here, in clever casting, Records’ John is still negotiating psychological minefields, and still facing monsters within and without, as his evolving relationship with elderly neighbour Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) brings out the best and worst in the troubled teenager, and presents him, on his road to adulthood, with a choice between divergent futures. 

Adapting Dan Wells’ 2009 novel, director Billy O’Brien (Isolation, 2006) has crafted a slice (and dice) of smalltown slaughter that shows real affection for its messed-up, misfit characters and their murderous urges. Though the presence of smartphones marks the film as contemporary, Robbie Ryan’s 16mm camerawork beautifully evokes the horror of the Seventies – and in attempting to understand rather than merely demonise its ‘villains’, I Am Not a Serial Killer earns its place as perhaps the most Capra-esque study of murder out there, as well as a Donnie Darko-like take on a young man’s difficult rites of passage. 

© Anton Bitel