DIR: Billy O’Brien • WRI: Billy O’Brien, Christopher Hyde • PRO: James Harris, Mark Lane, Nick Ryan • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Nick Emerson • DES: Jennifer Klide • MUS: Adrian Johnston • CAST: Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Max Records
Lurid title aside, here’s a film that needs to be taken seriously. Even if this surprisingly thoughtful horror contains a seam of spry and wry humour that insures that it doesn’t take itself too serious. And therein lays a vital distinction and a winning quality.
Beautifully timed as a release at the time of year that puts a chill in our bones, this film achieves the same ends serving up familiar genre tropes with a seam of personality and humanity that moves the film beyond simple or easy classification.
Presided over by the supremely assured touch of Irish director Billy O Brien, ‘IANASK’ is thoroughly a slice of Americana as John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) navigates the snow-caked roads of his small provincial town with a forensic detachment that is exemplified by his unsettling eagerness to assist at his mother’s funeral home.
Painfully aware of his own morbid fascinations, John has long since adopted a code of conduct to keep his macabre tendencies in check. However, when dead bodies start to crop up around town, the audience is kept on a knife’s edge when striving to interpret John’s passionate yet inscrutable desire to track down the killer. Is it admiration? Jealousy? Or is he seeking a mentor? It certainly doesn’t read as a typical hero’s crusade for justice but that’s exactly the atypical territory this film drops us into – shorn of the standard issue map of the hero’s journey that we are all so fatally over-familiar with.
Occasionally the film seems in danger of playing out as a riff on ‘Juno’ with just way more disembowelments. (An element that would only have only improved ‘Juno’ by the way.) Disaffected youths not being understood can stray into hipster whining in a heartbeat but the film clicks up several gears when John starts to focus on his elderly neighbour played by Christopher Lloyd, in a beautifully calibrated performance steeped in the weariness of a long life lived. Yet underpinned by a burning, enduring desire to keep living.
Which ties into the true horror at the heart of this film and it is merely this – the horror of ageing. The indignities it can contain as our bodies betray us. Our bones crumble. Our organs collapse. I struggle to think of a genre film that has so adroitly tapped into this rich theme. There’s a scene of Lloyd in the snow backlit by headlights that throbs with both rage and humanity as he lurches around in a manic bid to survive. The sequence literally bristles with a palpable primal urgency – it’s the howl of a dark soul facing its’ mortality. And it is bloody powerful.
Frankly, this is not the type of film that ends up on the Academy’s radar but it should, with Lloyd worthy of recognition to crown not only a widely divergent and impressive career but also this specific performance. A win for this role would not be some sop or the equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement award – he would deserve it for how honest, raw, tender and fiery his portrayal here is.
And so to the Irish talent at the heart of the film. Frankly, such is his virtuosity, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography would only be newsworthy at this stage if it inexplicably turned shit overnight. Which may sound like the most Irish compliment of all time so let’s be clear – his blistering icy and inky visuals are central to the thematic success of the film. Hankering back to a ’70s aesthetic while capturing a rare sense of naturalism elevates everything here. Giving it gravity and making the film seem vintage and timeless simultaneously.
The film represents a career high-point for Billy O Brien too, with the film’s director also sharing writing duties. And on this front, the film is no less accomplished, managing to intermittently defuse mounting tension with some bitterly funny lines and moments.
It’s not flawless. Some of the surveillance central to the plot stretches credulity. The ending probably over-explains when there may have been more potency in just cutting away with some mystery intact. There also appears to be a lull in the middle of the film as John appears to freeze into Hamlet-style procrastinating after he learns the killer’s identity. Still, considering what he’s up against, John probably has more genuine reason for delaying than the Dane.
If the festive cheer is leaving you cold or the incessant barrage of cosy commercials doesn’t chime with your world view right now, this film can serve as the perfect antidote. It’s original, oppressive and impressive. What an unexpected and enjoyably unpleasant surprise this film is.
16 (See IFCO for details)
I Am Not a Serial Killer is released 9th December 2016