Billy O’Brien’s “I Am Not a Serial Killer” (2016)

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Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer is a novel that toes a tricky line: it accurately captures the travails of adolescence, while nudging into taboo territory without reveling in its potentially exploitative elements. Some cite the book as “young adult,” and I can’t say that categorization is inaccurate. For those in the thick of teen angst, or still nursing developmental wounds from their formative years (raises hand), protagonist John Wayne Cleaver is intelligent, morbidly curious, and marked by a void where his conscience should be.

In some ways, he’s like a junior Dexter Morgan.

But whereas Dexter was indeed a serial killer, hardwired by an ingrained moral “code,” Cleaver is a bit more enigmatic. In the post-Columbine American landscape, notions of youth as murderers bent on their own self-destruction has spawned its own distasteful sub-niche in popular culture. Cleaver, however, is possessed of a self-awareness that makes him wise beyond his years and peers, and the fact that his mother runs a mortuary helps him channel his fascination with human bodies drained of life. He perpetuates a facade of normality by shoveling neighbors’ driveways, and maintains a relationship with the school’s other outcast to keep up a social appearance, but is ultimately a loner driven to fascination by a string of murders that wrack his small town.

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An incognito John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records). Image source:

Knowing little about the novel before reading it, I was surprised at the unpredictable directions Wells took the story. That being said, it’s not without its issues: the whole mortuary angle seemed a bit too convenient, and the machinations of the final chapters felt like a logic-leaping cop-out. As the novel is told from John’s POV, Wells could have played more with him being an unreliable narrator, clouded by his own distorted perception. But he instead chooses a definitive conclusion, using not-altogether-believable character turns to pull it off.

Despite its flaws, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a book that practically adapts itself: clean, structurally sound prose and clearly-defined characters, with a bare minimum of narrative gristle. And the film of Wells’ novel, directed by Billy O’Brien and adapted by O’Brien and Christopher Hyde, is an instance of Fight Club Syndrome in full effect.

O’Brien captures the snow-packed suburbs of the American Midwest with as little glamour as possible, and even gives the visuals a sense of anachronism – from the funeral parlor to a local diner to the boat of a sedan kindly old Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) drives, the film feels like something pulled from the ’70s exploitation craze.

That being said, this isn’t retro for retro’s sake; rather, the aesthetic is complementary to the story and characters, adding to an atmosphere of unassuming yet deceptive facades (literal and figurative). And the deliberately jerky cinematography (by DP Robbie Ryan), with its emphasis on handheld images, stalking tracking shots, and invasive close-ups, underlines the confined intimacy of the tale.

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Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) in I Am Not a Serial Killer. Image source:

As a character, John is not without ego and a healthy dose of youthful rebellion, and Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are) fills him with complex, multifaceted life. The interior monologues of the novel have been jettisoned (perhaps O’Brien’s concession to this approach already being claimed by Dexter), relying instead on the subtleties of body language and symbolism (John dons a panda mask near the end of the film – an eerie perversion of innocence, and a metaphor for a species’ own willful acceleration toward endangerment). As a disenfranchised American teenager, he never veers too far into abnormal maturity or childish naivete, and likewise never dips too far into likability or loathsomeness, maintaining a balance – however teetering – throughout. It’s an exciting performance from an actor destined for great things.

The other key player is Lloyd, who, after decades of notable roles in film and television, may have found his greatest and most challenging yet. Wells’ naming conventions are too on-the-nose for their own good (John Wayne Cleaver being a dichotomous reference to actor John Wayne and serial killer John Wayne Gacy), and Crowley’s alignment with the famed occultist foreshadows too much about his character. But Lloyd imbues the elderly neighbor with his own duality and nuance – it’s a subtly menacing performance that, like the film overall, finds fear and unease in the quiet, unprovoked corners of suburbia.

I’d compare O’Brien’s portrait of small-town America to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, but his approach is less barnstorming. Remember those creepy PSAs for radon that aired in the late ’80s? That’s what I Am Not a Serial Killer most resembles: a silent menace slowly infiltrating all aspects of a cloistered middle class.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 8 out of 10

(I Am Not a Serial Killer is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from IFC Midnight/Scream Factory.)