Max Records in the lead ’maintains a believable air of menace where the script only confuses’ in YA adaptation I Am Not a Serial Killer, says MacDara Conroy
It’s the coldest of cold opens, as a police car quietly approaches the scene of a very grisly demise. A few passers-by are gathered on the main drag of this depressed Midwestern town to gawk at the bloody remains, among them John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), who’s got a deeper interest than most.
His obsession with lurid true crime? That’s not unusual for teens of a certain bent. His home life above the family mortuary, where he shows a little too much enthusiasm for entrails? Probably less so. His diagnosis as a sociopath, with self-concocted rules for behaviour among the normals? Now we’re getting more peculiar. His conviction that he’s a serial killer in the making, just one bad day from a murderous spree? We need to talk about John.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as I Am Not a Serial Killer is truth in advertising: young John’s not the villain in this picture, at least not quite. His frazzled single mother (Laura Fraser) might think she’s been a terrible influence, though his birdwatching therapist (Karl Geary) believes he’s got a handle on things. And to his elderly neighbour Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) he’s just your typical awkward teen who’s there to help navigate the 21st century’s newfangled gadgets, or shovel the snowy driveway.
However, John’s morbid fascinations give him insight that others lack when it becomes apparent that an actual, god’s-honest serial killer is in their midst — one whose nature, after a shocking turn of events, would be scarcely believable beyond the Mulders and Scullys of this world.
Based on the first in a series of edgy YA novels by Dan Wells, I Am Not a Serial Killer is bursting with ideas and references above its station. The setting has a brisk, chilly mood akin to the best of The X-Files, or the Coen Brothers’ Fargo — a avowed influence on Irish director Billy O’Brien, who similarly shot on location in Minnesota.
It’s easy to see the parallels with Donnie Darko, a comparison to which many have jumped reflexively given its tortured-soul protagonist and eerie small-town milieu, or even shades of ‘Dexter: The Teenage Years’ in its misunderstood anti-hero.
But the film suffers from this surfeit, struggling enough to tie together its disparate crime thriller and vaguely science-fictional elements that character development falls by the wayside.
It’s disturbingly easy at first to get into John’s head and empathise with his grim, cynical view of the world, but the audience is lost as his motivations grow increasingly more opaque, while the people in his life are rendered variously as fodder for the plot, or quirky asides. It’s cute, for instance, that the object of John’s stalkerish affections (Lucy Lawton) turns out to be way more into him than he is into her, but it’s a subplot that goes nowhere.
Perhaps the biggest sin committed by I Am Not a Serial Killer is that it ultimately depends on one’s tolerance for such things whether the abrupt genre detour in the second act works, or ruins the whole experience — though either way, the film’s climactic scenes and their dodgy effects leave a lot to be desired.
Ten years on from his Irish farmhouse slasher Isolation, director and co-writer Billy O’Brien (who adapted the screenplay with Christopher Hyde) comes off as trying too hard with this feature, some six years in the making. But at least he’s trying, which is more than one can say for the usual YA fare. Kudos to Max Records in the lead role, too; he’s a pressure cooker of potential violence who maintains a believable air of menace where the script only confuses.
By the by, it’s jarring to see a credit for the Irish Film Board at the front of what’s a quintessentially American film. Still, better our money be spent on this than dreck like Dare to be Wild.
I Am Not a Serial Killer opens at Dublin’s Light House Cinema on Friday December 9th
Also published on Medium.