It’s not easy being the black sheep of the family, especially in a small town where your family are already looked on as being freaks, but with two bodies in a week there are no complaints at the Cleaver Family Funeral Home: “money in the bank,” as teenage John Wayne Cleaver puts it. The others may think it, but he’s the one who makes the insensitive, even inhumane comment, and it’s not atypical for him.
John’s struggling mother April has been concerned about him for some time. Brought up around death, helping her in the basement to clean, drain and prepare the bodies, he demonstrates sociopathic tendencies. “You have a lot of predictors for serial killer behaviour,” he is told by his therapist, Doctor Neblin, but while he has methods for controlling his urges, despite the goading of his high school peers, someone else lacks that control.
When a local mechanic is torn apart with “chain-saw like wounds,” the media start to talk of the Clayton County Killer, and John begins to put the pieces together and finds them short. There are organs missing from the bodies, almost as though trophies are being taken. If there is a serial killer out there, it’s not him, but he may be the person best placed to understand and track whoever it is.
Directed by The Hybrid‘s Billy O’Brien from a script co-written with Christopher Hyde, I Am Not a Serial Killer is based on Dan Wells 2009 novel of the same name, the first of five novels in his John Cleaver sequence, taking the Irish director from the comfortably familiarity of his homeland to the snowy northernmost point of the American midwest, filming in Virginia, Minnesota, population at the last census 8,712 and dropping rapidly.
In the basement of the funeral home, death is clinical and efficient with instruments laid and machinery to pump embalming solutions into cadavers as the blood is forced out through tubes to the drains below, and John discusses serial killers as he teases the flesh of his lunchtime chicken in the school cafeteria, but as much as the principal would like him to be normal there is nothing normal about this situation, the killings linked by an oily black residue found at the crime scenes.
Starring Where the Wild Things Are‘s Max Records as John, his performance is direct to the point of being challenging; he does not seek sympathy or understanding and nor does he particularly want to be liked, but he is a good kid who knows he must do things which are alien to his nature in order to coexist with mainstream society, yet he remains an outsider, quite literally as he looks through lit windows at (apparently) happy families.
Things are made more awkward when he walks in on April and Doctor Neblin (The Sisterhood of Night‘s Laura Fraser and The Burrowers‘ Karl Neary, actually offscreen wife and husband) on a date, but John is accustomed to the odd behaviour of others going uncommented on, even that of his neighbour across the road, the elderly Mr Crowley, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension‘s Christopher Lloyd giving a typically detached, almost otherwordly performance.
With an isolated small town beset by murder and eccentric locals, there is much of Twin Peaks and also The X-Files, and the cruelty of high school to those who do not fit in recalls Jamie Marks is Dead, but there are also aspects of Rear Window and, unexpectedly, The Thing. Despite his diagnosis, in his own bizarre and sometimes counterproductive way John is trying to protect his community, unrecognised and unconventional antihero of one of the most interesting and unique independent films of the year.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is released on Friday 9th December