A Review of Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer: Faulty Genre-Bending Horror

serial killer 2
Film: I Am Not a Serial Killer
Director: Billy O’Brien
Primary Cast: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Christina Baldwin, Dee Noah
US Release Date: 26 August 2016

John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is a high school student in a small, cold Midwestern town. The precise name of the town doesn’t matter; Max considers it “nowhere,” and nothing remarkable should ever happen there. When not at school, Max spends much of his time reading up on serial killers and helping his mother (Laura Fraser) at the family funeral home.

A diagnosed sociopath, Max struggles to connect with other people, and—like so many other teenagers at the center of novels—he is often bullied at school. In fact, the only person Max can really open up to is his therapist, Dr. Neblin (Geary). During his conversations with Neblin, Max reveals a belief that, despite his efforts to keep himself in check, he has no choice but to become a murderer.

And then a lot of people start dying in Max’s town. Their bodies are ripped apart, and some piece of them is always missing. As most of the town is steeped in grief and helpless panic, Max is filled with fascination, and he tries to understand the mind of whoever is behind the carnage.

Billy O’Brien’s adaptation of Dan Wells’s 2009 novel is an unevenly executed film that doesn’t quite manage to rise to the occasion. While dotted with bright spots—including an offbeat, devilish sense of humor—the movie remains rather flat, and it does little to truly engage, disturb, or stick with its audiences. I Am Not a Serial Killer is not a bad film, but it’s not a remarkable or noteworthy one either. O’Brien presents a film that will entertain a number of viewers, but it won’t deeply affect most of them, and the movie neglects to develop the most interesting aspects of its own story.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is at its best when it embraces its comedic side and when its focused on John’s character. John’s fascination with the macabre, combined with his desire not to kill despite his sociopathy and job at a morgue could all make for a fascinating character study (as could the psychology of the actual killer), but O’Brien never commits to that. Instead, he clutters his film with too many throwaway characters and minor plot details, which slows the film down while distracting from its more intriguing elements.

In addition to its writers’ better moments, Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are) also does a good deal to help the film shine. Records clearly has what it takes to make the transition from child star to adult actor, and I’d love to see him at the center of something a little more compelling. That said, Records makes the most of the material, and he navigates John’s personal struggles, the film’s lighter side, and a troubled script with considerable talent. Even when he’s revealing John’s darkest impulses, Records has the charisma and skill to keep the character sympathetic, and to keep viewers at least mildly concerned for his wellbeing.

At turns dark, creepy, quirky, funny, and mildly endearing, I Am Not a Serial Killer is not without strong moments, but it is also weighed down by an unfortunate inability to elicit emotion or intense attachment from its viewers. Like John himself, O’Brien’s film lacks emotional intelligence. As a result, viewers any older than John may leave the theater having felt almost nothing at all, and such lack of investment does not bode well for anyone hoping to see the rest of Wells’s trilogy brought to the big screen.

A bleak sense of humor alone is not enough to keep a film afloat, and O’Brien runs out of steam too long before the credits roll. Clocking in at under 2 hours, I Am Not a Serial Killer feels much longer, and it’s clumsy pacing weakens it considerably. The film also suffers from an identity crisis. In blurring the lines between genres, this YA/Mystery/Thriller/Horror/Sci-Fi occupies a complex space that invites impactful, innovative storytelling. Unfortunately, what O’Brien does within that space doesn’t capitalize on its potential.

Though funny, I Am Not a Serial Killer lacks energy. Though dark, it’s never truly scary. In fact, the harder the film tries to delve into horror and the strange, the less terrifying and effective the entire endeavor becomes. In fact—and due largely to abrupt, inelegant presentation—the film’s blackest, most grotesque images have the unfortunate effect of trivializing and detracting from John’s internal battles.

The last act is where O’Brien’s work most clearly comes apart. Instead of giving viewers a solid conclusion capable of elevating all that comes before it while also obscuring the flaws that haunt it, I Am Not a Serial Killer ends in disappointing fashion, which only calls attention to its problems. The film’s final turns are executed in a clumsy, slipshod manner which fails to provide viewers with any worthwhile or satisfying payoff.

There is a lot in I Am Not a Serial Killer that could produce a powerful, thought-provoking film. John’s way of seeing and connecting to the world, the killer’s motives, the ways in which the killer and John are different (and alike), and what happens to ordinary people when the devil invades their town are all subjects that deserve exploration. Unfortunately, O’Brien doesn’t present such topics with enough thought (or heart), and his film lacks depth because of it.

Taken as the product of its best ideas, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a unique, character-driven work that combines the creepy with the darkly comedic in entertaining fashion. Taken as a whole however, the film is just a hair better than “alright.” The film’s distinct personality is often charming, and there is plenty in the movie that deserves praise, but there isn’t much under surface, and any larger ideas are not well-articulated enough for I Am Not a Serial Killer to have a lasting impact.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for stopping by! As I indicated in my last post, I’m currently adjusting to life in LA. I start graduate classes and my related on-campus jobs this coming Monday, and I’m still pretty unsure of what my life will look like after that.

One thing I do know, is that I will be spending a good deal of the next year and a half reading about film theory and film history. So be sure to wish me luck as far as that’s concerned.

I also saw Kubo and The Two Strings earlier this evening, and it’s one of the best animated films I’ve seen in a while. And if I have the time, I’ll say more about that in another post.

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