Good-on I Am Not A Serial Killer for never bullshitting its audience. We don’t even get halfway into this Dan Wells adaptation before director Billy O’Brien addresses the elephant in his title. As the film suggests, O’Brien’s main character is not a serial killer, so why waste time teasing something that isn’t true when the film begins (but might be later)? Such a suggestive name plays directly into an unexpected story for those of us ignorant to Wells’ source novelization, without any momentum to waste. I like surprises, and this is one of the better ones a genre fan can ask for.
Max Records plays young John Wayne Cleaver, a diagnosed sociopath who works with his mother April (played by Laura Fraser) in their family’s funeral home. Everyone knows John isn’t exactly “normal,” which is why he visits his therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) to talk about his lack of humanity. John writes school papers on famed murders and shows a bit too much interest in the corpses he works on, but it’s not until a serial killer starts stalking victims in John’s small American town that his behavior truly digresses. Could April’s son be the one committing such heinous crimes? Or is John being profiled in the wrong way, distracting everyone from the real killer amongst them.
What’s assumed to be a straight-laced story about how to make a murderer is anything but in I Am A Serial Killer. Granted, these eyes never gazed upon Wells’ written words, so everything here came as a fresh surprise (which worked rather well). Without spoiling anything, O’Brien melds his hybrid watch into somewhere between a child detective caper and a supernatural slasher with pretty gruesome results – and it doesn’t take long, either. The film’s “twist” lunges early without warning, and shifts trajectory by establishing a constant air of uncertainty. John still fights urges that make him a perfect serial-killer candidate, teetering on a fragile ledge that simultaneously plays out during an unfolding monster movie.
It’s said that O’Brien set his direct sights on Max Records for the role of John, and it’s not hard to see why. Records brings a disconnected coldness to the sociopathic character of John, filling his emotional blanks with a lack of empathy and understanding. John is trying to remain an acceptable member of society, but bullies and a deadbeat father lead him towards darkness. His mother – who blames her funeral business for John’s mindset – bans her son from working on cadavers, and John is only left with a shaken sense of purpose thanks to Records’ brutally honest nature. Crazy eyes are one thing, but Records grimly positions John as Ted Bundy’s protege by submerging himself in a world of nothingness. Most other performances here are average to forgettable, but Records does his damnedest to draw the slack.
That said, I Am Not A Serial Killer isn’t exactly the next genre classic. Records’ performance aside, Christopher Lloyd is the only other character worth mentioning as John’s elderly neighbor who serves a larger purpose. The rest are just normal archetypes, stuck in O’Brien’s grainy lensing as the director spans the same snowy landscapes across an indie-primed town. Many scenes invest only in character, as atmosphere is dropped in favor of interactions that barely strike excitement. Dialogue languishes and small-town thinking tends to get a bit old, but Records still acts as a savior when John’s guarded looming causes onlookers to wince.
At its best, this is a film that keeps tension tight and anticipation on edge. At its worst, I Am Not A Serial Killer is a plodding little indie horror flick whose lacking charms are counterbalanced by Max Records’ performance. Like I said, Billy O’Brien doesn’t waste anyone’s time in introducing the film’s actual conflict, but still keeps all options open even in the face of supernatural involvement. Maybe John’s a serial killer, maybe he isn’t – each decision pushes Records’ performance closer to the brink, and we never doubt his capabilities. You think you know, but you don’t. Or you might? That’s the beauty of it all, never providing answers until the final, shocking turn.
I Am Not A Serial Killer is a devious production that uses its title as a distraction, only to present a much more interesting story when we least expect it.