Max Records gives one of the best performances of the year in the creepy and darkly funny I Am Not A Serial Killer.
Animal cruelty, calling living things “it”, stalking, and wetting the bed. These are the four predictors of a serial killer. John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) has them all. However, as the title suggests, he is not a serial killer. There’s just a serial killer in his town that is stealing the citizens’ organs. This is not exactly the making for what someone might call “good cinema.” However, I Am Not A Serial Killer is perhaps one of my favorite discoveries from 2016. It’s a movie that seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s based on a book (which Brian reviewed here) that found mild success, with actors that aren’t exactly box office drivers, and has a premise that can easily turn off a mainstream audience. So, what makes I Am Not A Serial Killer such an effective movie? It completely embraces its quirks and completely delivers on its genre promises.
John Wayne Cleaver is an interesting protagonist. He shouldn’t be so charismatic. I mean, he’s a clinically diagnosed sociopath. However, the movie is told solidly in his perspective. Every shot is of him or from his point of view. This gives you a link into his mind that is both disturbing and hopeful. I Am Not A Serial Killer is essentially two movies. The first is a character study focused on John. We see his day to day to life. We see him at school, helping his mother (Laura Fraser) in their funeral home – yes, it’s completely ironic – and chasing down his town’s serial killer. Casual stuff. However, when he starts getting a bit too close to the mystery, he has to find a way to save himself.
Max Records is tasked with carrying the movie on his shoulders. Not only does he do that, he elevates the material. His performance is surprisingly nuanced. He invokes so much with his face. In one of the best scenes of the movie, he is being taunted by the school bully at a school dance. However, per his rules, he simply smiles and says something nice. When the bully persists, he shoots into a monologue about his sociopathy:
He manages to be charming, yet absolutely terrifying without so much of a vocal inflection or aggressive gestures. His performance is so subtle, without feeling withdrawn. He gets you on his side and then gets your sympathy. He is the foundation of the movie.
Throughout, we find snippets of humanity in John’s struggle with his condition. He may be the first self-aware sociopath committed to film. Because of his understanding of his condition, John has an internal conflict to both fight and give into his urges. At one point John says emotionally, “People are afraid of things, but they’re never afraid of their own actions.” He fears that he is fated to hurt someone. It’s a usual point of conversation with his therapist who points out that his tendencies are predictors, not destiny.
About a third of the way through the movie, it shifts from a character study into a mystery that has elements of 80s television and invokes more recent shows like Stranger Things and The X-Files. It is revealed that the serial killer may not be so human at all. The killer is animalistic in its attacks and leaves behind a thick black goo as its only clue. John becomes fascinated with the killer. In my view, it’s because the killer is the Mr. Hyde to John’s Dr. Jekyll. He becomes obsessed with knowing who this killer is, what makes them tick, and why they’re doing this. Hey, better than murdering people, right? However, the deeper John gets into the mystery, the more intense his sociopathic tendencies become.
From there, the movie emulates shows like Dexter and Six Feet Under, but it doesn’t mimic them. Thanks to the effective cinematography by Robbie Ryan, the movie is actually quite cinematic for such an intimate subject. He uses a lot of natural light, which gives the midwest town a faded look that feels more realistic than the latest trend of desaturating the picture. Director Billy O’Brien adds a film grain to give it an even stronger 80s feel. Finally, composer Adrian Johnston’s creepy, synth-heavy score adds an underlying dread to the entire piece, especially with its sharp cues. For such a small movie, it’s expertly made.
I Am Not A Serial Killer will creep people out before they even watch it because of its premise. However, when you sit down and watch it you realize that the creepiness is exactly what it wants you to feel. I cannot say it enough, but Max Records delivers the performance of the year in this movie. If anything, watch it for that. I can’t wait to see what he does in the future. Overall, some will think the movie is a slog. It’s a slow burner by design. Plus, the final act payoff may not make up for that pace. But expertly built tension is effective storytelling. Whether or not this leads to a franchise, I Am Not A Serial Killer will stay with you from its final rock and roll beats.