It’s natural to be interested in serial killers, but it’s not okay to be interested in serial killers, you get me? The psyches of depraved, violent individuals are a field day for the study of psychological abnormalities and sociological triggers that can lead someone to commit something heinous and sadistic. The world is even more so infatuated by the idea of serial killers in disguise. While not “weirdos” on the outside, these seemingly normal people with seemingly normal lives, have the capabilities to hold a private life so secure that no one could ever dare to imagine the reality that lies behind closed doors. None fit this description more than that of Dennis Rader, aka “BTK” (an acronym for “Bind, Torture, Kill”), a Wichita, Kansas, husband, father, Cub Scout leader, and avid church-goer who, in 2005, was apprehended for 10 high-profile murders during the years of 1974 and 1991. Rader would send letters to the police, seemingly wanting to be caught, and the investigation into his crimes showcased a number of shortcomings in the Wichita Police Department’s skills of investigating homicides.
The Clovehitch Killer can’t readily be described as a “BTK Movie” as it’s not a direct adaption of Rader’s killings, but it sure does take a ton of inspiration from the macabre wonder of Rader’s case. The idea that a seemingly upstanding man could be responsible for not only killing a person but committing multiple egregious acts of gruesome violence over such an extended period of time is something that haunts communities forever.
Tyler (Charlie Plummer) is a seemingly normal 16-year-old boy. He lives in an unassuming neighborhood, is an Eagle Scout, and is devoutly religious, thanks to his upbringing from his father, Don (Dylan McDermott) and mother, Cindy (Samantha Mathis). Before Tyler was born, his community was rocked by a string of multiple murders of women committed by a killer who called himself “The Clovehitch Killer,” based on his favorite knot to bind women with. While the town commemorates the killings each year with a memorial service, the search for the killer has since ceased. One night, when attempting to woo a girl while parked, Nick finds a pornographic fetish photo stashed in his father’s truck, which leads him to search his father’s locked shed in the backyard. Slowly, and with the help of a new friend, Kassi (Madisen Beaty), Tyler soon begins to uncover that the mystery of The Clovehitch Killer might be close to home.
The Clovehitch Killer is a film that appears from the outside, with its IFC Midnight branding and intimidating title, to be a horror film, but there’s a certain slowness and mundanity to this film that feels far less glamorous than any horror film could pull off. It’s painfully uneasy throughout, leaving a massive pit in your stomach even when something major wasn’t even happening. It’s an awkward movie that asks awkward questions and gives you awkward results, which somehow makes this film feel borderline masterful. There isn’t any real tie to cinematic expectation or any showiness that could come from a film of this nature, but rather something a bit more lifelike. The Clovehitch Killer lives and breathes, it takes turns you don’t expect, it meanders in places and rushes in others. It actually feels how life can feel.
Plummer, known for his recent roles in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World and Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, is great in the lead role. Plummer has a unique presence to him that doesn’t feel like an actor who is demanding to be seen at all times. He can blend into a scene and disappear into a crowd. He’s an All-American Boy™ with a strangely alien quality about him, as if he’s not supposed to be in any of the places he actually finds himself in the film.
Yet, despite Plummer’s impressive performance, it’s McDermott who finds the limelight and works it to the absolute core in the film. Every single beat is hit with such a strangely uneasy tone to it that, even without knowing anything about the film, it would put you off to this strangely perfect man. And that’s where I think The Clovehitch Killer hits so hard, because McDermott is our dad. He’s charismatic, yet horrendously awkward, with this strange façade that only comes from a father hiding his problems from his children. It’s even more unsettling when the film begins to progress and we find ourselves more acquainted with the man Don has become, and it becomes painfully clear that this is not our dad anymore, or god forbid, we really hope it isn’t.
First-time director Duncan Skiles does a beautifully mundane job of adapting Spider-Man: Homecoming screenwriter Christopher Ford’s screenplay (I’m not joking). There’s a strangely Fincher-esque quality to the film that makes it all feel so shrouded in magnetic darkness that you can’t look away. There’s a timeless quality about this film that feels so sinister and inescapable, leaving no room to find reprieve from the darkness completely engulfing you. It’s all so minuscule, but the life in between the horrors is what I remember most from The Clovehitch Killer. It’s the architecture of the houses, the color-grading of autumn, and the silence of a film lacking much of a musical score. It’s like if David Fincher directed Napoleon Dynamite, but Uncle Rico was somehow a serial killer.
Being such a slow-burn, The Clovehitch Killer can occasionally feel a bit drawn-out, but the organic feeling of the story progression and the inevitable pull it has on your fears almost absolve it from that sort of “check your watch” vibe the film picks up during its second act but completely ditches during its final act. The Clovehitch Killer is a frighteningly quiet and surprisingly reserved look inside the world of a serial killer and the ways in which it affects the environment of not only its victims but the collateral damage that ripples into the community. Plummer and McDermott play perfectly together. The way in which Skiles constructs the film as a drama more than a horror film evokes more of Prisoners than it does of any slasher film. It’s that balance that breathes life and, eventually, takes life away from the web it weaves.
In select theaters and on VOD beginning November 16, 2018.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.