Movie Review : I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)
The idea of writing a story where a serial killer is the protagonist seems really cool on paper. How can someone who repeatedly commits the most unforgivable transgression in our society REPEATEDLY and FOR HIS OWN ENJOYMENT be worth taking interest in...and...welp...rooting for? It's the main problem I had with Showtime's iconic series Dexter aside from the mediocre writing. His "urges" were never really defined and he soon turned into a mildly creepy vigilante with a wife and a baby to care about. If the cable network failed to turn-in a though provoking show with Dexter, it doesn't necessarily means the idea should be trashed.
Novelist Dan Wells gave the concept a shot with I Am Not a Serial Killer, originally published in 2009. The young adult novel's tone was considerably darker and less gimmicky than what Showtime turned Dexter into, yet it also focused on a young man who established a rigid set of rules to prevent himself from indulging in his fucked up and violent fantasies of cutting human beings opened. Someone turned I Am Not a Serial Killer into a movie, last year and I was immediately intrigued. Would it be the narrative that would FINALLY nail the endearing sociopath protagonist without turning him into Grindcore Spiderman?
The answer is....hum...kind of.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is the story of John Wayne Cleaver * (Max Records) **, a teenager who's recently been diagnosed to be a sociopath by his (very caring) therapist (Karl Geary). He is obsessed with serial killer history and fantasizes about murdering people whenever he's not doing his homework or WORKING AT HIS MOM'S FREAKIN' FUNERAL PARLOR ***. When people start dropping in his hometown, people aren't really suspecting John but it becomes his new source of obsession. Unaware that there was another source of danger to people around town other than himself, John starts looking for potential suspects. Only problem is that answers will be coming a liiiiittle too quickly.
Let me reassure you: John Wayne Cleaver is a true blue sociopath. He's fucked in the head and the movie never dismisses it or conveniently turns it into an advantage. He threatens classmates, angrily waves a kitchen knives at his inept mother, breaks into someone's house at some point and takes an inordinate amount of pleasure at embalming cadavers. John suffers from not being able to fully be himself in a way most teenagers do but he's also afraid of that true self, which makes him interesting in my book. The plot of I Am Not a Serial Killer takes a sharp left into a random corn field about one thirds into it (you'll see), but remember that it is, first and foremost, a story about a young sociopath facing his darkest fear: himself. Take whatever the movie throws at you with a grain of salt because there's an allegorical value to it. Because it gets quite freaky for a movie that treats its sociopath protagonist with such seriousness.
Two other things I liked about I Am Not a Serial Killer: First, wherever the movie was filmed. It reminded me of the Aberdeen I've seen and learned to love from the obscene number of Kurt Cobain documentaries I've seen ****. The houses are old and run down, the city's economic center is built around struggling mom-and-pop shops, everyone knows each other on first name basis. Whoever came up with the idea of filming in this particular town got the gist of John Wayne Cleaver's inner psyche. The aesthetic of I Am Not a Serial Killer is just realistic enough to make you doubt whether what you see is real or whether it's a projection of ol' Jay Dubs' mind, which is critical to the movie's cohesion (as you'll see).
I've also enjoyed the subversiveness of I Am Not a Serial Killer. Director Billy O'Brien is not afraid of showing John Wayne Cleaver for who he really is. His fascinating with death transpires in funeral parlor scenes where he takes an awkward amount of fun playing with people's organs and observing how they're made on the inside. O'Brien muddles the boundary between pleasure and terror also after John witnesses a hyperviolent scene and soils himself. I Am Not a Serial Killer dares you to love its protagonist despite his alarming tendencies. I mean, we're not talking Neon Demon levels of subversiveness, but I've enjoyed seeing a young adult narrative taking such chances and redefining "flawed protagonist" for its target audience.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is a good movie. It lives up to its daring title, so I don't think it will offend any people. I don't know of any 100% sane people who would have to confirm they're not a serial killer in their lifetime. That said, the movie has a genre bending surprise for you that some moviegoers might find off-putting. Hell, I've found it off-putting at first. I Am Not a Serial Killer is a six books series, though and the first adaptation set the tone appropriately, without coming off as gimmicky or intellectually lazy. It may not be your cup of tea. It's a ridiculously slow film that's more tensions than action, but I've enjoyed it. Genuinely subversive ideas rarely make their way to cinema screens and the idea that a troubled young man with homicidal impulses might be worthy of love seems to me like it's just that.
* What a great serial killer name. Well played, Dan Wells. Well played.
** Max Records is a great name too. Well played, Mr. and Mrs. Records. Well played.
*** This film doesn't fuck around with its portrayal of sociopaths, I'm telling you.
**** I've only seen three, it seems. I've seen more Nirvana-related stuff, though. Maybe 6 or 7 docs overall?