I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (Dir- Billy O’Brien, IRELAND/UK, 2016)
Starring- Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Lucy Lawton
Out in UK Cinemas 9th December
Recently viewed at a special screening hosted by Grimm Up North, before the screening took place Grimm’s head honcho Simeon Halligan did a brief quiz asking what film the director, Billy O’Brien, had previously done. Trying to job my consistently leaking brain I could vaguely remember, however when it turned out to be ISOLATION, I was kicking myself. O’Brien’s first feature was an impressive and taut début that benefited from the ironically isolated setting and marked a director to keep an eye out for. After certainly a long gap in between films and only one full feature to his name O’Brien has however been busy trying to bring Dan Wells novel to the screen having to navigate the various problems of funding that inevitably hampers a film such as this. However his patience has worked off and what we get is a feature that plays on expectations and relies on an interesting central and pretty troubled, borderline sociopathic character as its lead.
John Wayne Cleaver (Records) is a troubled, well rather very troubled teenager living in a snowy mid-western town which is currently being plagued by some strange serial murders. These murders ironically provide business for his family’s funeral home, in which John assists in the preparation process of the cadavers before the service along with his long suffering mother April (Fraser) who has to cope with being called into school when John does write up assignments on serial killers. Naturally he stands out as the unusual weird, creepy kid prone to confrontations in the lunch hall with bully’s. He has help from a therapist Dr Neblin (Geary) who gets him to use coping mechanisms from curbing his violent sociopathic urges. Yet his obsession with the current serial murders happening around him starts to bring out John’s inquisitive and dangerous side and this leads him to suspect that his elderly neighbour Crowley (Lloyd) is hiding something that may be linked to the killings.
This is not the first time that I’ve said this in a review, but to reveal any more would ruin I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, as there’s a twist in this that throws everything off balance and a twist that is a daring one at that. Even myself while watching the film predicted what was going to happen but then I was wrong as there’s a further revelation I did not expect at all and made an interesting spike in the story that turns it into a new even almost genre bending angle which benefits the material as it blends normal serial killer thriller tropes with other genre elements to create something original and almost un-classifiable in terms of genre. O’Brien handles the proceedings efficiently and confidently taking time and introducing us into the world of John and his dysfunctional family and his own sociopathic tendencies.
A great scene has John being confronted by the arch-typical bully at a school Halloween dance and rather than whimper or look away from the thug, he stares at them smiling, explaining politely that he’s thinking about killing him but doesn’t want to do that but has to think that in order to curb him from acting on it. It’s a well written scene that both skewers the bully and bullied dynamic and will have anyone who faced this in high school cheering or laughing along. Records is brilliant as John and nails the role perfectly managing to make a character who is un-predictable at best but somehow is completely engaging and likeable as the misfit who turns amateur sleuth.
Records who has been on hiatus from acting since the Jonah Hill comedy THE SITTER, is a revelation as he makes John a realistic character in the way you can see there would be many teenagers who are like this, sociopathic, oddball but somehow more interesting than most others of his age. He is also brilliantly complemented by Lloyd as neighbour Crowley, a kindly old man, who somehow is hiding something that he doesn’t want anyone to see.
Lloyd manages to convey perfectly the ageing process, and despite his character’s revelations we start to somehow convey sympathy for him as the film progresses. As a veteran actor Lloyd has always been associated with the Doc Brown role from BACK TO THE FUTURE and whilst he may have been pigeon-holed into comedy roles before, he has shown he can play dramatic and complex character’s. Just witness his brilliant support turn in the 1995 darkly comic gangster thriller THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. Now he can add I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER to this list in showing that the actor can still produce interesting roles in his later years.
Added to this O’Brien is helped by fantastic 16mm cinematography by Robbie Ryan which captures the snowy, bleak landscape of the mid-western town in a grainy look that emphasises the small town setting and the night time scenes shot, also project the dark isolated area as if to hide something threatening in the darkness that might be watching our character’s. The only downsides, which there is little of, is the initial first twist which is pretty easy to see, however this is further turned upside down by the previously mentioned further twist. The twist itself might end up throwing and disappointing viewers expecting a straightforward serial killer thriller, who may not be willing to accept the outcome of it and find it a hindrance to the overall plot.
There is also a relationship between John and another girl Brook(Lawton) which doesn’t seem fully realised and somehow is not explored more and could have been something taken from the original source novel that worked in that medium but not fully realised in the film version. Yet these are small discrepancies and criticisms in what is a highly entertaining and original film that skewers conventions and creates realistic likeable character’s, in a real world setting thrown into a dark situation that is sprinkled with some dark humour.
In a strong year for horror overall this is a great film to end it on (unless something turns up between now and the 31st December that is even better) and its a testament to the genre that it can still throw out material that confidently bends expectations.