Like zombies and (to a lesser extent) vampires or werewolves, the serial killer has become a screen demon whose mold has been re-shaped so many times that it's easy to wonder if there's anything truly fresh to do with the most human of monsters. The Clovehitch Killer utilizes the horrific subject matter as a springboard for a coming of age story, much how Summer of '84 did earlier this year (though the future IFC release is probably closer stylistically to Craig William Macneill's '15 roadside motel shocker, The Boy). The logline is simple: wholesome, sixteen-year-old Tyler (Charlie Plummer) has reason to believe that his Scout Master father Don (Dylan McDermott) may be his Midwest hometown's long-dormant repeat strangler, who claimed the lives of eight women ten years ago. The only question is: what the hell do you do when your dad could possibly be Henry Lee Lucas?
However, what makes Duncan Skiles' slow burn horror movie a familiar but engrossing experience is the fact that the central mystery often takes a backseat – at least during the film's pensive and unsettling first half – to watching Tyler continue to try and maintain a normal relationship with his father, despite discovering a stack of bondage porn and bloody photos in his pop's private shed. Don senses that something isn't quite right with the boy and, after Tyler uncovers even more damning evidence in their suburban home's crawlspace, addresses it directly instead of shying away. Yes, what the kid found is certainly involved with a crime, but it's not what he thinks it is. His dad's just trying to help the family's invalid uncle, who fostered some rather dark urges and may have acted upon them. But Uncle Rudy's in a wheelchair these days, and doesn't even speak. What good would it do to go to the cops now that the man couldn’t possibly hurt anyone?
Skiles brings a near sepia-toned eye to the mundane proceedings of this Nowheresville, USA town, where Don takes pride in helping the borough’s boys become men, and everybody within its limits shows up to worship on Sunday. If the tone of The Clovehitch Killer weren't so elegiacally stone-faced, one could almost imagine the narrative playing out like near parody in another filmmaker's hands; a brightly lit, red, white and blue nightmare of smiling faces, church steeples, and bodies hidden beneath neatly manicured gardens. Yet screenwriter Christopher Ford (Cop Car, Spider-Man: Homecoming) isn't interested in humor beyond some deadpan irony that would make Douglas Sirk grin. Everybody involved knows that evil is festering beneath the surface of this solemn portrait of American life, yet none acknowledge the pin prick in their atmosphere, slowly letting all goodness drain out until the killer huffs his own poisonous carbon monoxide and decides to pick up the rope again.
Dylan McDermott has mostly made a career out of playing sharp TV lawyers, swinging dick cops, and creepy, handsome perverts. Yet it's when he portrays dads that he seems to be having the most fun, letting that thick baritone of his do all the heavy lifting as he calls Tyler "champ", not too unlike the way he did to depressed freshman Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. With The Clovehitch Killer, McDermott's usual dashing looks are muted, thanks to a prosthetic pudgy center, greying hair and an accountant's specs. Nevertheless, the fact that we always feel like we're looking at a sex symbol trying to pass himself off as "one of us" is what renders his performance so odd and beguiling. In even an ostensible aesthetic fashion, the actor’s tapping into the fact that Don is always hiding his true, unsettling desires beneath a veneer of normalcy that seems on the verge of cracking at any moment.
Unfortunately, once The Clovehitch Killer pivots at about the halfway point into being an almost Rashomon-style serial killer procedural, the movie ends up being less interesting than when it was a straight-ahead story of a possibly sick father trying to maintain a healthy rapport with his only son. Fans of the subgenre should note that Skiles' film trades in rough kink and unsettling imagery, as opposed to the gory dread of something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. None of this is to imply that the young director isn't good at mounting tension or staging shocks (because there's at least one jump out of your chair scare), it's just that he seemed to be crafting something slightly more idiosyncratic and mesmeric for the initial hour that's mostly abandoned in favor of a routine thriller.
Still, it's tough to really knock a movie this formally precise, and Plummer acts as a rather charming audience surrogate, allowing us to feel his character's fear, doubt, and love for his father (sometimes all at once). Plus, the ending of Skiles' picture packs a rather potent punch, as Tyler is forced to make difficult choice after difficult choice in his pursuit of this All-American butcher of women. By The Clovehitch Killer’s tragic finale, we're able to forgive any sort of experimental misfires since it sticks the landing so well, illustrating a time in one boy's life where he learned the meaning of true evil, and just what lengths he was willing to sink to in order to put an end to its terrible reign over the place he calls “home.”
The Clovehitch Killer premiered at the LA Film Festival. It is set for limited theatrical and VOD release from IFC Midnight on November 16th.