My central problem with I Am Not a Serial Killer is I went into it expecting an entirely different kind of movie. Based upon a half-remembered conversation I had with someone about the film months ago, I had the impression I Am Not a Serial Killer was sort of like a black comedy version of Apt Pupil, involving a disturbed teenager (played by Max Records in a revelatory performance) suspecting his elderly neighbor (played by Christopher Lloyd) of being guilty of awful deeds. Except unlike Apt Pupil, where a sociopathic teen (Brad Renfro) correctly concludes his neighbor (Ian McKellan) is a Nazi wanted for war crimes and uses that information to blackmail him into teaching him about death, I Am Not a Serial Killer would take an alternate approach whereby the boy would turn out to be wrong, falsely accusing a poor old man. Hilarity ensues?
Yeah. No. That’s not what this movie is at all.
By the thirty-minute mark (of a 104-minute movie), we see [spoiler alert, if you consider something that happens so soon in the movie to be a spoiler] visual evidence confirming the kid’s suspicion. There is thus little mystery to this film’s series of murders nor is there any subsequent attempt at blackmail. Turns out, the title isn’t in reference to a falsely (or fairly) accused old man but instead to the central 15-year-old boy named John Wayne Cleaver. He’s a diagnosed sociopath who lives by a set of rigid rules to govern his impulses and keep him at least somewhat close to normal. Think of him as a young Dexter Morgan, just more quick-witted and in better control of his sociopathy (e.g., he’s not killing small animals yet nor does he have a dad training him to just kill bad people if he must kill at all). He does not want to become a serial killer, but he’s terrified it might be unavoidable.
John keeps his serial killer tendencies in check by prepping for a potential career as a criminal profiler and working after school in his mother’s mortuary, satisfying his morbid curiosities by getting an up-close view of dead bodies. Plus, he has at least one close friend his own age who helps him do normal things, like play video games. John’s normal-seeming enough that one girl in his class continually and somewhat adorably throws herself at him, but he’s not actually normal enough to notice or reciprocate her feelings.
When a series of murders break out in his small, Midwestern town and it becomes apparent they have their own serial killer on the loose, John is understandably intrigued but also somewhat mystified, telling his therapist, “It all just feels so close. This is nowhere. It isn’t supposed to happen here. It’s supposed to happen somewhere else.”
The local cops are completely in over their heads, and John starts profiling the case on his own time, noticing how the killer appears to be keeping at least one organ from each of the victims. Once the signs point to his next-door neighbor, he shadows him all over town, riding safely behind his car on a bicycle in one sequence practically lifted straight out of Phantasm (and scored similarly as well).
When his suspicions are confirmed in a stunning death scene, John’s first reaction is to pee his pants while watching from afar, indicating he might not be serial killer material after all, not yet at least.
What proceeds from that point forward is an indie movie’s version of a cat and mouse game between killer and would-be killer. In-between John’s attempts to stop his neighbor and scare him through messages left on windshields and phone calls placed late at night there are also plenty of shots of John sitting quietly in his living room and looking off in the distance like a particularly disaffected teenager as well as glimpses into his unhappy family life. His older sister is barely around. His mother (Laura Fraser) is desperate to understand him, yet he continually pushes her away. And his absentee father, who left his mother years ago and is never shown on screen, can’t even get a basic Christmas gift right.
This is in contrast to his neighbor, who is unquestionably and supremely devoted to his wife of many decades. How could this man be so in love and still kill so many? And will John’s obsession with this central question as well as the specifics of the various murders push him over the edge? Plus, spoiler alert, there’s also a surprisingly supernatural element at play, which is also confirmed at the 30-minute mark.
All of that is what I Am Not Your Serial Killer is actually about, carried by its exceedingly strong central performances (beyond Records, Lloyd alternates between pitiably frail and shockingly scary with alarming ease) and eye for an often Let the Right One In-esque atmosphere. John’s eyes are opened to a wider range of potential emotions throughout the story. Of course, the pacing transfers from deliberate to meandering more than it should, and while [spoiler alert] the supernatural element John encounters serves a metaphorical purpose it also feels somewhat unnecessary [end spoiler]. However, that is not enough to derail what is ultimately an intriguing movie, particularly for anyone who already has a morbid curiosity with the particulars of sociopaths and serial killers or just really liked Dexter‘s flashbacks to his teenage years.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I Am Not a Serial Killer is not the movie I expected to be; it’s actually something more interesting, with indie sensibilities which likely test some but greatly reward others.
At the time of this writing I Am Not a Serial Killer is available to stream on Neflix, and it was adapted from Dan Wells’ 2009 novel of the same name. Wells has since released two sequels following the further adventures of John Wayne Cleaver.