Probably the only narrative story device more hackneyed than the serial killer is the paid assassin. Neither are as tenth as ubiquitous as the movies would have us believe, and yet there’s obviously something about them that appeals to our ability to suspend disbelief because there sure are a lot of films that, pardon the expression, keep trying to pump new blood into the genres. As its very title makes clear, The Clovehitch Killer is not here to disabuse the viewer of any pretensions to being anything other than a serial killer movie, and for the most part it’s pretty straightforward in terms of plotting and elements of suspense, but it’s also weirder than that title lets on, and I’m not sure the weirdness was entirely intentional.
The title refers to the m.o. of a serial killer who terrorized a small Kentucky suburb ten years prior to the “present day” action: he would always leave a rope tied in a clovehitch knot at the scene of the crime. The story centers on one family, the Burnsides, and for most of the first half the POV is that of teenage son Tyler (Charlie Plummer), whose adherence to God, in the form of the family’s rock-solid evangelical beliefs, and Country, in the form of his membership in the local chapter of a religion-affiliated scouting organization, is wavering due to the usual mix of adolescent hormones and healthy pre-adult skepticism. One night he secretly “borrows” his landscaper father Don’s (Dylan McDermott) pickup truck for a rendezvous with a girl he has a crush on, and while they make out the girl finds a ripped out page from a bondage magazine under the seat. Tyler denies it belongs to him but the discovery definitely ruins the mood, and over the next couple of days through the power of rumor Tyler earns a reputation as a “pervert” at his high school. Forget that in the age of the Internet (a plot point that is constantly confounded with the appearance of flip phones alongside GPS apps) it seems strange that bondage magazines are still a thing, but in any case Tyler understands that the page must belong to his father. The fact that Tyler is shocked by this only reinforces the viewer’s conviction that he’s way too naive to be the protagonist of a serial killer movie, since Don is pretty much your classic example of the serial killer type: creepily outgoing, severely limited in terms of worldly interests and knowledge, and phonily candid about the sins he does admit to. Quickly, Tyler begins to wonder if his father, in fact, is the Clovehitch Killer, and enlists the help of a shadowy outcast girl, Kassi (Madisen Beaty), who is the town’s resident expert on the case, since she happens to live with a woman who wrote a book about it.
There isn’t much of a mystery to solve, and in rapid succession clues turn into hard evidence, so the story’s most compelling aspect is what Tyler and Kassi decide do with this evidence. Director Duncan Skiles actually does well with the little he has to work with, creating a genuinely paranoid mood thanks mainly to McDermott’s uncharacteristically absorbing performance. Skiles is also not afraid to throw in comical non sequiturs to break up this mood in order to rejigger the emotional stakes, though at times you might think to yourself: That’s some really B-grade David Lynch shit. But once the POV moves away from Tyler you understand what Skiles is up against, and the movie strains at your desire to keep suspending disbelief for the sake of the movie. It all becomes just too much, which is a shame since McDermott and Plummer at times really seem to have something great going on.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
The Clovehitch Killer home page in Japanese
photo (c) Clovehitch Film LLC 2016