Based on the 2009 Young Adult novel of the same name, I Am Not A Serial Killer follows teenage sociopath John Cleaver and his fascination with a series of killings taking place in his town. After discovering the killer’s identity, he is compelled to investigate further – amid his own fears of what he himself could turn into if he’s not careful.
On the surface, John has the same problems that most awkward teenagers have in high school; he’s bullied, has few friends and has trouble with the opposite sex. But that’s where the similarities end, as John works in his mother’s funeral home and regularly meets with his psychologist to discuss his sociopathic tendencies.
He gives himself a set of ‘rules’ to follow so that he stays normal, at least on the surface. If he feels like killing someone he gives them a compliment and a smile until the urge goes away. He hangs out with a classmate so they can do “normal” things together. He has a difficult relationship with his mother, and his school are concerned about his obsession with writing about notable mass murderers for his classwork. After he spots someone lurking in various places around town, John suspects (for some reason – intuition?) that he’s on to something, leading him to witness a murder first-hand. This leads to his fixation with finding out more about the killer, causing him to become a witness to more murders. He tries to stop him, but also try to understand who he is, and where he came from.
Admittedly it’s not the most original set-up, seeming almost like a teenage version of Dexter. The trouble is this aspect really isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Other than a few references to his lack of empathy (which could easily be mistaken for teenage crankiness) John really doesn’t seem all that much like a budding serial killer, and the lack of tension or complication in his stalking of the killer make it hard to really become involved in the story. The other characters don’t become involved in any major way either. At one point John storms out of an exchange of Christmas presents and goes back on the hunt – and nobody seems to care.
The film’s first half does do a good job at introducing the character of John Cleaver, and the world that he lives in. Max Records put in a good performance, although it’s more angsty teen than anything sinister – but he’s certainly come a long way since Where the Wild Things Are. There’s also a typically memorable performance from Christopher Lloyd as John’s neighbour. This aside, the film still feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, starting with its misleading title. John is never seriously considered to be the serial killer and the film never really gets in his head and shows us what makes him tick. What could have been this decade’s answer to Donnie Darko instead feels like a mish-mash of underdeveloped ideas that don’t really fit together.
The film’s biggest flaw however is a supernatural element that seems completely unnecessary to the overall story. Early plot points involving a school bully and a possible love interest are dropped in favour of a half-baked paranormal plot that is introduced in a way that’s more confusing than scary.
Where the books of Dexter introduced the supernatural in a way that that ended up involving the ancient god Moloch, they wisely got rid of this detail in the show – no doubt thinking it wouldn’t really translate. Maybe the makers of I Am Not a Serial Killer should have taken the same approach.
‘I Am Not A Serial Killer’ is out in cinemas from December 9th.