I Am Not a Serial Killer
by Hope Madden
To find a serial killer, you have to get inside his head. This is not a new concept in horror movies, thrillers, police procedurals. No, this is a tired conceit.
But Irish filmmaker Billy O’Brien (Isolation) finds a new vision for it with his wry, understated indie I Am Not a Serial Killer.
John (Max Records) is an outsider in a small Minnesota town. He works in his mom’s morgue, writes all his school papers on serial killers, and generally creeps out the whole of his high school. His preoccupations have landed him a therapist, the bird enthusiast Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary).
Turns out, John is a budding sociopath – that’s his official diagnosis. A good kid who lacks empathy, may not feel love, and obsesses over death and murder, he follows self-imposed rules and rituals to try to make himself normal and ensure the safety of those around him.
But when townsfolk start turning up in gory pieces, John turns his keen insights on the case.
Though O’Brien’s film may be too quiet an effort to command attention, his coming-of-age approach and indie sensibilities help him turn this outlandish and contrived effort into something touching, humorous and rewarding.
Records, who melted me as young Max in Spike Jonze’s 2009 masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, serves up an extraordinarily confident, restrained performance. One scene, in particular – when he turns the tables on a bully at the school dance – is outstanding.
His onscreen chemistry with the nice old man across the street – Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd – generates thrills enough to offset the movie’s slow pace.
For his part, Lloyd is in turns tender, heartbreaking and terrifying.
The story cleverly inverts the age-old “catch a killer” cliché and toys with your expectations as it does. Robbie Ryan’s grainy cinematography gives the film a throwback looks that fits the image of a depressed Midwest town lost in time.
Bursts of driest humor keep the film engaging, while Records’s performance engenders the kind of empathy from the audience that the character himself could never muster.
It’s an effective twist on the serial killer formula, certainly, not to mention a coming-of-age tale that accepts its unpopular protagonist for who he is rather than how he could be made over to be happier in a way that makes us comfortable.