Loretta Goff is on the hunt for Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, which screened at the 2016 Cork Film Festival.
Deftly blending genres—part thriller, horror, comedy, drama and romance—I Am Not a Serial Killer is a unique film full of surprises. The teenage protagonist of the film, John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), is fascinated by serial killers and has been diagnosed with sociopathic tendencies, leading him to create a set of rules to live by in order to prevent him from hurting or killing anyone. However, when a series of linked murders occur in his small Minnesota town, John becomes obsessed with discovering and understanding the killer, testing these rules.
John works in the family funeral home, helping to embalm corpses, and thus has access to the bodies of the murder victims. Rather than shying away from their wounds, missing organs and limbs, John studies them closely and goes to the crime scenes, working on a profile of the killer. Despite the concerns of his mother (Laura Fraser) and quirky therapist (Karl Geary), and the fact that John doesn’t feel emotion in the normal sense—in fact he is repeatedly labelled as abnormal—he is also a very likeable, and even relatable protagonist.
Director and co-writer Billy O’Brien (Isolation) clearly frames John as an outsider and an observer. Numerous voyeuristic shots through windows, trees, grass and binoculars are all from his perspective, at times innocuously observing the girl he seems to like and family life, and others more seriously tracking the killer. We also see shots from John’s perspective lingering on the blood draining from bodies as they are embalmed and on their wounds. These, and his fascination with serial killers, lend a sinister tone to his character, particularly when paired with close-ups of him slowly cutting chicken meat from the bone during his dinner. At the same time, however, John is repeatedly seen doing the right thing and is a large source of the humour in the film. Similarly, though his reactions and emotions don’t always align with what is “normal”, his emotionless face always appears pleasant.
In part family drama, I Am Not a Serial Killer explores relationships. Within the Cleaver family there is an absentee father, strained mother-daughter relationship, and of course John’s relationships with his family, therapist and people at school, affected by his inability to feel. On the other hand, contrasting with this emotional lack in John, is the abundant love between his elderly neighbours Mr. and Mrs. Crowley, through which the theme of aging is also explored. The key relationship in the film, however, is between John and Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). While the film is well-acted all around, this pair of actors (Records and Lloyd) in particular do a superb job in their nuanced roles.
The film is able to quickly shift between light-hearted, serious and chilling moments, and even blends naturalism with the supernatural as the killer is unveiled. Moments of sudden shock are juxtaposed with slowly built suspense and terror as the film moves into horror territory, assisted by clever editing and a solid soundtrack. The theme of darkness within us is explored throughout the film in terms of John suppressing his own dark urges, but as the horror in the film grows, this theme also take on a more literal embodiment. In a particularly poignant scene regarding this, Crowley recites William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” as he sits with John in the dark by a glowing fire, contemplating darkness and light rooted in the same source. Ultimately, the film is a rollercoaster of emotion, full of sudden dips and turns, offering a bit of everything, but seamlessly fitting together.
Following the film’s screening in The Everyman, Billy O’Brien and producer Nick Ryan participated in a Q&A. O’Brien spoke about Dan Wells’ novel of the same name, from which the film was adapted, noting that he was attracted to its dark humour. As the novel is very much a first person narrative, O’Brien explained that Max Records’ face filled that role in the film, reflecting John’s perspective. Both O’Brien and Ryan praised Records and Lloyd for their performances, noting their collaboration, dedication and chemistry.
Though the process of funding the film was a struggle, taking six and a half years in the end, Ryan noted the continued support of the Irish Film Board throughout this process, providing a backbone of funding. The film, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, has been doing the festival circuit since and has been particularly well-received by European audiences. O’Brien remarked that I Am Not a Serial Killer is “an American film [set in Minnesota] with a European heart”, and that it offers something different.
I Am Not a Serial Killer screened on 17th November 2016
The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November