Film Review: I Am Not A Serial Killer @ London Film Festival 2016
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Dan Wells’s unusual coming-of-age novel bursts onto the big screen in a stunningly original adaptation, packed out with dark laughs and a totally bonkers supernatural twist.
It’s worth stating now for the record, Billy O’Brien’s genre-mashing thriller won’t be to everyone’s tastes. In fact, it’ll probably be to very few people’s tastes, but those who find themselves entranced by its oddness are in for a wild and captivating ride.
Sociopathic teen John (former child star Max Records) finds himself drawn to a spate of killings that are tearing apart his tiny middle-American town, driving him closer to his therapist (Karl Geary), his friendly neighbour Mr Crowley (Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd) and the very edges of his own (understandably debatable) sanity.
It’s a hard film to classify, but one which takes off as a bizarre concoction of Donnie Darko, Rear Window and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, with most oddly of all, hints of The Thing.
The backbone of O’Brien’s tale is undoubtedly John’s psychopathy, framing it at first as almost a character-study of a homicidal teen; Submarine without the sweetness, or Ted Bundy: Origins. This is how it all begins and to be brutally honest, if it had continued in this way, it would’ve made for a challenging and entertaining indie in its own right.
But of course, O’Brien throws in a monster. And not a metaphorical one either: an ancient, tentacled evil with little more than murder on the brain.
It’s at this stage when, as an audience, we all reach a crossroads: stay for the silliness, or hightail it out of there moaning under your breath about how such a good idea has been ruined. For those who stay however, and buy into the supernatural goings-on, there’s plenty more to love.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, for one thing, shines even more as the monster-movie-mystery takes point, helping to ground, yet still ever-so-slightly stylise, the more mystical moments on screen. Ryan, largely a newcomer in the past few years with British delights Philomena and Slow West, but now a veteran of Loach and Arnold, brings a welcome sense of nostalgia to his imagery, but refuses to ever stray into gimmickry.
The monster designs themselves too are perfectly handled, making for a big bad that remains (for most of the running time) subtle, and always, at every stage, threatening. O’Brien does well to not run away with this twist too, still keeping things in John’s crazy little world, even as the killings become more and more elaborate.
And as a result, Records owns the film completely. The former child actor, known for his heartwarming turn in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, manages the near-impossible feat of making a sneering sociopath not only likeable, but gratingly funny throughout. Everything from his family chemistry to his wide-eyed one-liners sizzle beautifully; it’s the role of a lifetime for a teen actor, and Records knocks it out of the stratosphere.
It’s worth giving Christopher Lloyd a nod too however. The greying actor seems to have struggled with escaping the mad professor vibes of Back to the Future even after all these years, but here he opens things up massively, delivering a performance that’s both vulnerable and seriously edgy throughout.
There are a few issues in the long run: O’Brien and co-scribe Christopher Hyde’s plotting feels a little too meandering at times, particularly towards the end, and John’s mental somersaults aren’t quite tied together as well as they could be, but these rarely detract from the big picture: I Am Not A Serial Killer is a stunningly brave and thrilling piece of work.
I Am Not A Serial Killer is screening as part of the 60th BFI London Film Festival this October. Further details including ticket info can be found here.