For me, the most notable thing about I Am Not A Serial Killer (other than the horrendous title) is that fact that it’s headlined by Max Records, the child star of Spike Jonze’s excellent 2009 adaptation of Where The Wild Things are. I remember seeing The Sitter theatrically, but completely forgot about it, and by extension the fact that Records made another movie. His headlining role surprised me because the movie also stars Christopher Lloyd – regardless of who the movie is actually about, Records wouldn’t necessarily be the first name in the credits with Lloyd also in the production, so it would have been great to have been a fly on the walls of those contract negotiations. In the end, it doesn’t really matter – Records absolutely deserves his billing.
His performance is by far and away the best thing about this movie. Not that that movie is bad at all, but it suffers from taking a bizarre twist at the end of Act 1, and for me it never fully recovers – given that the twist becomes the main plot point. Of course, I won’t go into it, but when it happened, I turned to my wife and asked, “Did that just happen?” I went into this movie expecting one kind of a story, and this twist really threw me for a loop, and the plot points that came after it never quite gelled.
I also didn’t know that this was based on a book – in fact, it’s based on the first book of a YA series by Dan Wells, unofficially referred to as The John Wayne Cleaver trilogy, after the main character. The book’s main conceit – that a 15 year old must keep his homicidal tendencies in check by a set of “rules” that he’s set for himself – is uncomfortably close to that of the literary and television series Dexter, and as I’m writing this, it also strikes me that Cleaver’s direct connection to a mortuary is like another Michael C. Hall show, Six Feet Under (and recent supernatural horror movie The Autopsy of Jane Doe, but this is purely coincidental). I won’t call it plagiarism, but such an obvious character though-line doesn’t sit well with me. Rant over. I haven’t read the books, and the movie is nothing like any episode or season of Dexter I watched, so no harm no foul. And yeah, I get that the title is the main character’s repudiation of his innate nature, but I still hate it.
While there wasn’t a lot about the movie that grabbed me (and some things that frustrated me), there were a number of things I liked. First and foremost, I really enjoyed Max Records here. He’s the focus of the movie, and despite being away from movies for a while, the maturity of his performance is noticeable. He’s captivating in all of his scenes, and he plays the role of a troubled teen without it seeming like I’ve seen it all before. I was reminded instantly of Keiran Culkin, whose promising career has kind of fizzled out. I liked the character too, and the production also doesn’t fall into a typical YA groove. There is a female character that could easily become the teenage love interest, but refreshingly that doesn’t happen. There is a bully that doesn’t get his comeuppance, and that was a nice change too. Bullies are assholes, but revenge against them mostly only happens in works of fiction. There’s a confrontation scene, and it’s satisfying in that Cleaver (Records) uses it to simply speak up and threaten. No punches, no chases, no real resolution – and it works for me.
I also really liked the overall look and feel of the movie. It definitely feels like it takes place in small town America, not a Hollywood version of one. I didn’t know that it was filmed here in Minnesota until the end credits, but during the movie I planned on hitting up Wikipedia to see if it might be. Some of the fall scenes were actually filmed in the Twin Cities area where I currently reside. In addition to that, even though the story is set in contemporary times, it also captures that stuck-in-the-70s and 80s feel that these small Midwestern towns have. Time seems to have stopped in these places, even though everyone has their smartphones and internet, and not to get political, but it’s because of small towns like these that Donald Trump was elected. The movie has that Fargo feel, and it works very well in its depiction of one of these small communities, isolated by hundreds of square miles of surrounding farmland and bypassed by networks of highways.
All this stuff is pretty good, but what isn’t so good is the twist I mentioned before, and how the plot unfolds after that point. Here’s the description of the book from Wikipedia: “[Cleaver’s] careful regime of self-denial is threatened when he becomes ensnared in a serial murder case in which he senses a connection with the killer” and if this was what the movie was actually about I think I would have liked it better, but that isn’t the case. The twist is so unexpected that I can’t go into it here without ruining it, but it’s also so out there that the fact that Cleaver never once addresses it first hand with the killer is a bizarre omission to say the least.
This frustration with the plot leaks over to the fact that for such a small town, the piling up of bodies and missing people is noticed, but within the plot there’s very little sense of urgency outside of Cleaver’s storyline. Even in these small sleepy towns, I can’t believe national news and government agencies (two of the missing people are cops) wouldn’t have camped in for the long haul during an ongoing situation, so the story felt too small and unambitious.
And what of Christopher Lloyd? I was surprised by his role in this, which I suppose is a spoiler of sorts – but not quite. I don’t recall the last time I saw him in a movie, but I’ve kind of always liked him, and I liked him here too. It doesn’t feel like it was a paycheque job and sure, he’s in the twilight of his career, but he gives a credible, character-driven performance that isn’t lazy or showy. Billy O’Brian, director and co writer (along with Christopher Hyde), doesn’t have a long list of credits under his belt, but I thought he did a bang up behind the camera here. I don’t imagine that this will become a franchise, but it could certainly lead Max Records back into the limelight.