I Am Not a Serial Killer

Based on a 2009 ‘Young Adult’ novel by Dan Wells (the first in a trilogy I believe) I Am Not a Serial Killer is a British/Irish co-production set and shot in the chilly Midwestern state of Minnesota. It is directed by Billy O’Brien and stars the seventeen-year-old Max Records, Laura Fraser and Christopher Lloyd.

Records plays John Cleaver, a fifteen-year old who has just been diagnosed by his child psychologist as a sociopath with an unhealthy obsession with serial killers and dead bodies. This facet of his character is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that he just so happens to live above a mortuary owned by his mother (Fraser) and helps out there. Aware of the terrible impulses that constantly tempt him, Cleaver tries to keep himself “good” and “normal”. However, when a spate of grisly murders occur in town and bodies show up missing various limbs and organs, it becomes increasingly difficult for Cleaver to stick to his rules and ignore his morbid fascination for serial killing. When it appears that the elderly neighbour across the street (Lloyd) may have a part to play in the gruesome violence that erupts across town from Halloween to Christmas, Cleaver realises he may just have to let his dark side out in order to stop the carnage. But, in giving over to his impulses, could Cleaver be more dangerous than the monster he attempts to hunt down?

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I Am Not a Serial Killer mixes a coming-of-age tale with dark horror and quirky sci-fi. As such it is very much distinctive fare, helped enormously by the 16mm cinematography by Robbie Ryan (a favourite DoP of mine responsible for, amongst others, Slow West, I, Daniel Blake, Catch Me Daddy, and the Andrea Arnold films like Fish Tank, America Honey, and  Wuthering Heights to name but a few), but its interesting premise and rather assured build up in the first half is somewhat squandered by a sagging and ponderous middle and a final reel that will possibly divide many an audience. Its central theme seems to be the notion of whether man truly is the most dangerous beast of all and, without giving the plot away too much, it addresses whether the seemingly inhuman and unfeeling are capable of real love. It’s certainly a thought-provoking line of enquiry to explore but, with the film’s obvious low-budget limitations, I found myself hoping for something less ruminative and po-faced and rather more eager to embrace its own inherent schlockiness as the film progressed. But then, given its ‘YA’ appeal and origins, I’m guessing its target audience is specifically angst-loving teenagers who can latch onto the central conflicted character of Cleaver. With that in mind, a knowing, arch approach probably wouldn’t do.

Where it is a little more knowing is in its setting. Minnesota is seemingly that most European of states, offering up as it does a landscape that is suggestive and redolent of Scandinavian countries, right down to the manners and outlook of its residents; the famed ‘Minnesota Nice’. As we know from Fargo, both the 1996 Coen Brothers classic and the subsequent TV series, it is a quirkily delicious, quaint backdrop for unexpected, gruesome murder and, viewed through the Irish eyes of O’Brien and Ryan, I Am Not a Serial Killer only adds to that pop-cultural mystique.  There’s also a retro air to the proceedings too, despite the story being set in the present day, that seems quite fitting; Minnesota being the town that time forgot – a wintry netherworld where unimaginable evil lurks under the niceties of the chilly suburbs, as exemplified by Christopher Lloyd’s character.

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It’s great to actually see Lloyd given the opportunity to take a starring role once more and he takes the role of the Blake quoting pensioner with a subtle relish. But the real star of the show here is Records as John Cleaver. It would be very easy for an actor to portray the aloof, strangeness in a character diagnosed with sociopathy but, with an instinct beyond his years, Records knows it is far better to aim for the more ordinary, everyday aspects of his character, making the struggle he faces on a daily basis more palpable and more sympathetic to the viewer. Laura Fraser however, has very little to do as Cleaver’s mother beyond looking bewildered and concerned by her son’s darker character traits. The diminutive and pretty Scot is an actress I’ve liked since the late ’90s, so it’s a real shame that she has yet to find a truly good American role of notice.

Ultimately, I Am Not a Serial Killer made too many mistakes to be anything particularly successful for me personally. That’s not to say that there won’t be an audience for it, however, and I can imagine that audience being particularly vocal and loyal in its appreciation as well as younger than I am. Like Roger Murtaugh, I’m probably just too old for this sh*t.


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I am not a Serial Killer is playing in selected UK cinemas from December 9th

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