The Shallow Tale Of A Writer Who Decided To Write About A Serial Killer

The Shallow Tale Of A Writer Who Decided To Write About A Serial Killer (2024)

The Shallow Tale Of A Writer Who Decided To Write About A Serial Killer had its world première at Tribeca, 8 June 2024

As text captions absurdly reveal, The Shallow Tale Of A Writer Who Decided To Write About A Serial Killer opens in 40,000 B.C., Slovenia, as though this were a bombastic, Bay-gasmic Transformers sequel, situating its contemporary events on a broader, more cosmic canvas. In fact the monochrome opening, which shows the world’s last Neanderthal (Cihan Yildiz) shivering and terrified in a dark cave as a Homo Sapiens woman circles, represents the difficult second novel that Keane O’Hara (John Magaro) has been working on for the last four years. “Just write about something you’re familiar with, okay, something that’s a part of you,” smarmy agent David (Ward Horton) tells Keane in a New York diner. Yet it seems obvious that Keane is writing what he knows, working through the thorny central romance in his novel in the same way that he is navigating troubled waters in his relationship with the altogether smarter, more sophisticated Suzie (Britt Lower, who plays both Keane’s wife and the Homo Sapiens woman). Fed up with Keane’s constant indecision, slavish dependence, and inability to finish what he starts, cool, even cold Suzie wants a divorce, and even toys with ideas of murder.

As if by magic (or “just luck, or a twist of fate”), no sooner has David suggested that Keane try writing somethingh different than Kollmick (Steve Buscemi) materialises. This strange, somewhat shabby figure comes to Keane with an offer too good to refuse: to learn (and write) about the exploits and methodology of this “retired serial killer”. Kollmick is to be Keane’s cicerone and ‘counsellor’ – but through an absurd sequence of misunderstandings and cover stories, Kollmick also ends up posing as ‘marriage counsellor’ to both Keane and Suzie. He even proves good at it, in spite (or perhaps because) of his frequent references to the external dangers beyond a relationship’s ‘safe space’, to getting to know every move and routine of ‘your other one’ (like a murderer on the hunt), and to autopsies and death. Though initially confused by Kollmick’s modus operandi, Suzanne comes to like him – and to see Keane in a new light for taking the initiative to arrange Kollmick’s services. Yet as these different worlds – reconciliation, murder – start to merge in ever more complicated ways, and it becomes harder to determine who is victim and who is killer, who is sub and who is dom, and where reality ends and fantasy begins in this tangled relationship, slowly Keane and Suzie will realise who they really are and what they want from their marriage. 

The Shallow Tale Of A Writer Who Decided To Write About A Serial Killer

“You didn’t see me tonight, and none of this every happened,” Suzie will tell her cab driver (Jacob Ming-Trent) as she pays him for tailing Keane and Kolmick all evening on a highly suspicious cross-town adventure. “None of this happened.”  Her words resonate with more than one meaning in a film where Kollmick does not merely mediate between husband and wife, but may just be a figment collectively conjured by both of them. For much as Keane used regularly to watch then fellow student Suzie “from afar” before finally building up the courage to talk to her, Kollmick, from his digs in a dingy Chinatown hotel called “Afar”, stalks Keane, popping up whenever the writer is contemplating a radical change in literary direction, and offering himself up as Keane’s dark other and shadow self. Even Kollmick’s strange name, an anagram of ‘mock kill’, suggests his fictionality.

As Keane seeks a way out of his creative rut and new material for his writing, Kollmick appears as the id to Keane’s ego, and the calculating, active mentor and muse to Keane’s passive hesitancy – and of course a type more commercially viable than anything Keane had previously written, even if he still retains something of Keane’s own characteristic schlubbiness. It is a dynamic familiar from the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), with its Afar-like Hotel Earle in which Buscemi had already appeared as the bellhop Chet. The Earle played host to the bookish, blocked writer Barton who, in seeking inspiration for a wrestling B-picture beyond his usual skillset, sealed himself off in his room before a typewriter, imagined for himself a suitable sparring partner in the person of travelling salesman/serial killer Charles Meadows, and so wrestled his way through the internal conflicts of his creative process. 

Here Kollmick performs a similar function to ‘’Mad Dog’ Meadows, allowing Keane to explore his outer moral limits, and teaching him the valuable lesson that no matter how much things may get out of control, you “stick with the plan” and “finish what [you] start”. Kollmick is expressly “Don Quixote” to Keane’s “Sancho”, letting Keane play out the fantasy that “if you believe it, it will be real.” Meanwhile Kollmick also serves as a mirror and foil to Suzie’s own dark thoughts, sociopathic tendencies and killer instincts, giving all these a safe(-ish) space to find their proper expression – and whether Kollmick is a real person who happens to cross this couple’s path, or a quixotic fiction and a (mixed) metaphor for their troubles and a possible solution, he certainly provides a pathway for them to stay together, and for Keane finally to finish his novel (with a female character whose own motivations and inner world Keane now better understands and appreciates).

In other words, The Shallow Tale of A Writer Who Decided to Write About a Serial Killer is a film whose entire plot is outlined in its title. This is, after all, concerned with an artist essaying a new form to see where it leads – even if it is left to the viewer to determine just how shallow the eccentric, oneiric convolutions that ensue may be. Writer/director Tolga Karaçelik places a relationship drama up against a crime thriller, and lets a surreal kind of humour emerge from the incongruities of these two overlapping story modes, where marriage is murder, and manslaughter is therapy. The film is also, courtesy of DP Natalie Kingston’s mannered lighting and camerawork, absolutely beautiful to behold, while Nathan W. Klein’s jazzy score sets a perfect tone of fey jauntiness. Although the viewer may never be sure whether its central couple should stay married, fuck or kill, there is a singular pleasure in watching (from afar) as they create their own reality together, and plot out a future that is happy precisely for its lack of a clear resolution – till death do them part.

strap: Tolga Karaçelik’s wry writer’s block-buster hilariously mixes its metaphors about marriage and murder

© Anton Bitel