by ETHAN PETERSON
I Am Not A Serial Killer
dir. Billy O’Brien
John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) lives above a mortuary with his mother (Laura Fraser). His father was a gregarious nincompoop who beat his mother and bailed on the family structure. He and his mother are awakened at all times of night to service the various dead of the small Minnesota town they call home. They pump bright pink embalming fluid into the bodies in order to prepare the corpses for viewing. It is a virtual certainty that after the first twenty minutes of I Am Not A Serial Killer, opting for cremation will be the first thing on your mind.
Records has a natural affability that on the surface makes him a strange choice for a role as sociopath. Whenever he gets a violent urge — like wanting to tear someone’s head from their body, or torch a cat — John has a simple rule that gets him back on the golden path: he pays the person who is angering him a compliment.
His therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) loves birdwatching, the kind of eerie pastime that suggests perhaps he is the man making all the bodies turn up dead in the mortuary. Whoever is doing the killing is removing particular organs from the deceased, and Cleaver wants to put together the pieces of the puzzle. What is the killer doing that he doesn’t have to do? he wonders to his soon-to-be ex-friend Max.
The answer is quite a lot. Max quickly begins to suspect his neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) of the crimes. He plants a GPS in Crowley’s car and discovers him impaling a drifter with a strange weapon on a frozen-over lake. Yes, it is self-defense, but why doesn’t Crowley report the situation?
In high school, Cleaver is mostly ostracized except for the attentions of Brooke (the promising young actress Lucy Lawton). He is not much of a target for bullies whoever, who he threatens and frightens with dismemberment. They become the bullied ones, and report his language to the school. His mother tries to discipline him, but she can’t think of any punishment he would either not enjoy or isn’t already meting out on himself.
It is actually hard to believe that Cleaver is a sociopath, since he is aware that he does not have the feelings he should, which means on some level he is actually experiencing the correct response to events. He is utterly baffled at Brooke’s attentions and can think only of what her head would look like on a stick.
Dan Wells wrote the novel series that the film of I Am Not A Serial Killer is based on. He couldn’t wait to get his central character out of high school, since even he seems uncomfortable with the idea of a cold-blooded murderer around all these helpless children. I Am Not A Serial Killer is surprisingly uncontroversial for being a story which could push so many buttons in the contemporary climate. It almost feels like John Wayne Cleaver is the guy who went up the beanstock.
The novels themselves are sadly pretty terrible; without spoiling what Christopher Lloyd is revealed as being, it is a revelation that works a lot better in this adaptation than it ever did in the books. I Am Not A Serial Killer never becomes the slightest bit scary or threatening; it is the most feel good story about a sociopath hunting another serial killer ever conceived.
Maybe that’s all for the best, as this lack of tension allows second-time director Billy O’Brien to focus on the more subtle moments. How Cleaver approachs and feeds a fire, talks to his mother, sister and aunt are all given far more time than they would in the Hollywood version of this. O’Brien does a fantastic job making I Am Not A Serial Killer look like a first class production despite working with the equivalent of the catering budget on a Dwayne Johnson movie.
Christopher Lloyd himself makes a big difference. His casting in the Back to the Future series was in some sense a shame, since he was just 47 when he played Doc Brown and he was only cast as an old man for decades afterwards. As Crowley, Lloyd is clearly having great fun lurching around, making his movements just unnatural enough to where he becomes entirely alien and yet nowhere near as threatening as the protagonist himself.
For his birthday Cleaver’s father sends an mp3 player but forgets to fill it with all the songs of John’s childhood. He is really upset by this, and tries to think of what personal rule against violence he can break. He never goes through with it, never scares us by doing anything a sociopath actually would. He’s the dark boy who cried wolf.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York.