The question of how well we ever really know our parents is one that surely hangs heavy on any slightly-curious child. We never know what we were like before we were born; we only see the personalities they present to us, which of course are tailored specifically for us. So it must come as a surprise when a parent turns out to be, say, a serial killer.
This is the premise of Duncan Skiles’ The Clovehitch Killer. Charlie Plummer stars as Tyler, a high school kid in a town whose history is marked by the murders of the Clovehitch Killer. When a rumour about Tyler spreads based on S&M photos found in his dad’s truck, he befriends outcast weirdo Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a Clovehitch obsessive, bonding over their shared pariah status as “perv” and “slut” respectively. Together, they piece together a somewhat inevitable theory that Tyler’s dad Don (Dylan McDermott) might just be using his scout-master skills for more than just outdoorsmanship.
Cop Car and Spider-Man: Homecoming writer Christopher Ford’s screenplay lays out all its secrets at the top of the film, then has Tyler and the viewer second-guessing themselves for the duration of the film. “My dad can’t really be a serial killer, can he?” is the conflict at the centre of Tyler’s story, and the way the film plays with twists, and subverts certain values – Tyler’s family is extremely religious – is fascinating. The Clovehitch Killer is set in very white, very suburban America, an America that has never not concealed rot just under its surface.
Central to that is Dylan McDermott’s performance (and Ford’s dialogue) as Don, a classic “killer with a code” whose code has nothing to do with his killing. Don holds politeness, personal privacy, and family unity above all else, and it’s a true delight to see him scolding his son for being nosy when he’s caught literally in the process of murdering somebody, or disguising attempts to hide evidence as simply being a concerned dad. This is a guy who has a plan to build a torture dungeon, but who gives stern lectures on gun safety. McDermott clearly relishes that dichotomy, delivering an intense, entertaining performance with some terrific freak-out moments.
The flip side of that, of course, is Tyler’s journey as a son. Clovehitch isn’t just about the lengths a killer will go to to hide from their family; it’s about the lengths that family will go to to convince themselves their loved one is innocent. It’s a specific and powerful kind of denial; one we use to prevent emotional pain more than physical. In a way, it’s Tyler’s motives, not his father’s, that are under question most of all. At no point do we really believe Don isn’t the killer, but Tyler’s beliefs shift and change throughout, making the big narrative question that of whether he’ll defend his father’s innocence. The film deploys some clever non-linear storytelling tricks to keep us guessing
Sadly, The Clovehitch Killer skims over some of its most interesting material. Much of the film revolves around the trust one places in one’s parents’ words, and the unravelling – and subsequent re-ravelling – of Don’s status makes for terrific viewing. But equally interesting is a sequence examining the fallout within the family, once the secret is out. Suddenly, the family’s main breadwinner is gone, replaced by a kind of inherited guilt none of them deserve. That’s something we rarely see in serial killer moviesL what are the ramifications on killers’ families after they’re apprehended? It could have stood to be explored to a greater degree.
Also disappointingly shallow is the film’s dialogue on the relationship between sex and violence. The plot kicks off with the discovery of old bondage magazine cutouts, and Don definitely exhibits (and hides) some atypical sexual identity and predilections. But the film draws such a straight line between S&M and actual violence that it ends up demonising behaviours that for many people are completely ordinary and unharmful. There’s a nod toward bondage being a purely sexual, consensual thing, but it’s a nod from the goddamn serial killer – and even he purports to be ashamed of what he’s done. Again: there’s material to be explored here, but it’s left uncharted.
The Clovehitch Killer is a well-constructed, fairly by-the-book serial killer film with just enough unique personality to set it apart. With a great supporting turn from McDermott and some interesting observations on the middle-American nuclear family, it’s a fun time for murder-movie enthusiasts, even if the actual murder content is low. If you’re looking for kills, too bad, but Clovehitch isn’t interested in that. This is a movie about everything surrounding a killer – their family, their outside life, and the world they live in. Honestly, that’s more interesting than any kind of murder M.O. If anything, The Clovehitch Killer could have afforded to go further down that road.
The Clovehitch Killer opens in limited release on November 16, 2018.
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