THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER"
As horrific as they are, serial killers hold a perverse fascination for many people. If they didn't, there wouldn't be so many books and movies about them. No one could reasonably condone what such criminals do, but they certainly offer a chance to stare into the abyss, which is a proposition some can't resist. I Am Not a Serial Killer, based on the novel by Dan Wells, is expressly about this idea. The lead character stares into that abyss and worries about falling into it, a thought that unnerves him -- and us.
Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are) plays John Wayne Cleaver, a young man living in a tiny Midwestern town. It's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else, and where a lonely teen is happy to shovel the sidewalk of an elderly neighbor like Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). John has sociopathic tendencies and an obsession with death, for which he sees a therapist, Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary). He knows what he's potentially capable of and very much wants to avoid doing anything to hurt anyone. When a serial killer begins knocking off some of the town's residents, he's automatically intrigued. Without the knowledge of his mortician mother (Laura Fraser), John starts trying to track down the killer to observe him. Some of it is fascination, but we quickly sense that, to another degree, he's also looking for proof that he's not that bad.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is the kind of movie that casually works its way under your skin. The chilly, evocative cinematography and mystery-laden tone seem a bit off-putting at first, but they gradually pull you in, proving to be powerful elements in making John's journey engaging. Director Billy O'Brien skillfully creates an atmosphere of danger that increases the closer John gets to uncovering the secrets of the murders. He makes sure that each step in the character's detective work is fraught with peril that we can sense.
There is an interesting notion running beneath the plot. John is very worried that he will someday become a killer because of the mental health issues he's dealing with. Confronting an actual killer opens up the idea that he is perhaps not as much of a sociopath as he thinks, given that he cares about the victims. He wants to stop the psycho from hurting anyone else. In many respects, the true mystery of I Am Not a Serial Killer isn't the identity of the murderer, but rather the question of whether John can accept that he has some mechanism that separates him from the person terrorizing his town.
Max Records is perfectly cast here, earning our empathy while simultaneously making us aware that John has problems which can't be ignored. The character is an unusual hero, and Records rightly isn't afraid to play that up. He also makes the most of the darkly comic moments, which help to prevent the movie from becoming too grim.
His primary co-star is just as good. Christopher Lloyd gives one of the year's most essential-to-see performances as Mr. Crowley. Few actors are able to suggest the quirks, eccentricities, and inconsistencies of a character the way Lloyd can, whether it's as Jim Ignatowski on Taxi or Doc Brown in Back to the Future. His work in I Am Not a Serial Killer is perfectly realized, showing that Crowley possesses a worldview that's more complex than it initially seems.
The one area in which the movie will falter for some viewers is in its mixture of genres. There is a slight supernatural component to the film that comes into full fruition in the third act. Would I Am Not a Serial Killer be stronger without it? I'd argue yes. John's uncomfortable fascination with the murderer is engrossing enough on its own; there's no need for some otherworldly twist. Then again, that's not the fault of the film, which is merely adapting Wells' novel. Still, it's here, and it may inspire a touch of ambivalence in some audience members.
Even with that caveat, there's plenty to recommend. I Am Not a Serial Killer is exquisitely acted and creepy as hell. Whereas many movies about psychopaths follow the same formula, this one carves out its own path, continually surprising you with twists and turns, and ensuring that you wait eagerly for each new development.
( out of four)
Note: I Am Not a Serial Killer is in select theaters and on VOD starting August 26.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is unrated, but contains adult language and some graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.
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