Director: Billy O’Brien
15 | 1h 44min | Thriller | 9 December 2016 (UK)
Playing Irish Film Festival 2016 on November 25.
With the Irish Film Festival in London now underway, the Smoke Screen is keen to recommend from the programme this left-field serial killer drama, directed by Irish director Billy O’Brien and adapted from Dan Wells’ cult novel. It is one of those films that slides around intriguingly (as opposed to awkwardly) between genres, whilst feeling distinct enough in its vision, coming apart slightly only at the end when it commits to a revelation that feels both a little superfluous and unearned. If you had to compare it to anything, shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter spring to mind.
Set in a wintry midwestern small town (given plenty of character thanks to the 16mm work of DP Robbie Ryan), the film follows the exploits, and takes the POV of, one 16-year-old John Cleaver, a kid who has some pretty serious issues. John is different from the other kids at school, and not just because he is introspective and awkward. John has actually been diagnosed as having the same psychological makeup as a psychopathic serial killer something that haunts his nervy mother (Laura Fraser, from Breaking Bad) who keeps him distracted by employing him in the funeral home’s mortuary, where his uncontainable fascination with death and corpses can be focused where it cant hurt the living. There are plenty of thriller films out there based around unstable protagonists, and many others that play upon society’s fears of teen delinquents going to the dark side. But making the main character here a young man who actually knows he is basically a fit for the template of a killer – and is struggling to deal with it – gives the film an immediate, compelling edge. It also raises the question as to whether or not John himself is responsible for the string of brutal and unusual murders that start to rock the neighbourhood.
John becomes obsessed with hunting for the killer, but is he doing this because he wants to embrace a kindred spirit, and to find a teacher? Is this hunt part of some extreme psychological defence mechanism his mind is resorting to, all to avoid the truth that he is actually the murderer?
Either way, the solution seems to involve his odd, elderly neighbour Crowley (Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd) who seems to always be there when the killings take place. As John, Max Records (the young kid from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are) is really convincing at portraying a kid who has spent years practicing wearing a mask of normality and pretending to make emotional connections, and the screenplay requires him to veer between being goofy and genuinely menacing, which he pulls off just fine. John’s abnormal perceptions of the world and his struggle to stay contained help justify the tonal variations of the movie itself: which at times can seem like a Wes Anderson film with its almost cheery depictions of mundane Midwestern life in this sleepy town, which are then interrupted by some genuinely unsettling scenes – with the eerie and intense score really helping here – when the killer strikes.