Friday a friend and local author hit something of a milestone in his already admirable career. You see, some years back Dan Wells wrote a little book called I Am Not a Serial Killer. You might have heard of it. You might not. If you haven't heard of it, go buy it and read it right now. I'll wait.
Back? Good book, wasn't it?
So Friday night the movie version of this book released in six cities and on video on demand.
I'm going to break this review into two parts. the spoiler-light section and the spoilery section for those who are fan of the book and want a deeper examination of the adaptation. The spoiler light section will be mostly spoiler free if you've read the book.
I Am Not A Seriel Killer is a solid execution of a fairly difficult proposal, the adaptation of a book which is fairly intimate and cerebral in its presentation. It's the story of a young man, John Wayne Cleaver, who is the son of a Mortician and starts noticing a strange pattern in the bodies coming through the morgue. To add an extra twist, John has Antisocial Personality Disorder. He's a sociopath. His greatest fear is that he's a budding serial killer and he will do almost anything to stop that from happening.
John has developed a set of rules to keep himself under control. He's not allowed to stalk another person. If he feels the urge to hurt someone, he must compliment them instead. John, while broken in a way few of us are, is still fundamentally a moral character. He won't let himself become the monster his brain wants to create.
But now someone is out there killing people, and the police can't help, and John might be the only one in the town with the skill set and the unique perspective to stop the killer.
The star of this movie is Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are). He brings a raw and compelling performance as John. He pulls us immediately into John's world. We feel for John, especially because John can't feel for himself. John is both armored and vulnerable at the same time. He is both without feeling and an exposed nerve. Max plays this dichotomy perfectly. The only thing I can say bad about him was I didn't like his hair, and seriously, that puts him in good company (I'm looking at you, Tom Hanks.)
In the book, John is balanced against his family: his mother, sister, and aunt. Also Brooke, the girl he's drawn to. In the movie, John's counterpoint is the loveable neighbor Mr. Crowley, played by Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future). Crowley is passion where John is calculation. Crowley is warmth where John is distance. Crowley is age and experience where John is youthful mistakes.
The movie hangs on this relationship and it succeeds. From the moment that John helps Mr. Crowley use his smartphone to send his wife a kiss, the relationship between these two characters sparkles on the screen.
Of course, this is an independent picture. The picture quality isn't what you'll expect if you're used to big budget films, but the directing and the cinematography are solid, the locations good, most all of the acting compelling (there's one exception from a bit part in a news program that's a bit painful, but it's brief.)
My only real complaint about the film is the music. It pulled me out throughout, from the song playing at the school dance to the opening music to the scoring. Only the closing song is really compelling and it's so compelling that not even inanimate objects can resist it.
I can heartily recommend this movie to anyone. Many people call it horror, but as a piece of film it's solidly in the thriller category, so don't panic if horror turns you off. I made my mother watch it to see if it would play with someone dead set against horror films, and it went over well.
The novel I Am Not a Serial Killer is fundamentally about John's relationship with his own broken brain. While there's a killer to be caught, the killer serves as a reflection and symbol of John's inner self, his personal demons manifest in the world. His battle to stop the killing is, at its heart, symbolic of his battle to master himself.
The movie doesn't actually fail here, but this is the weakest part of the adaptation. We can't see inside John's head, no matter how well Records puts his performance on screen. We don't really get John's relationship with his rules, though we do know his rules exist. We don't see John's struggle with his potential inner monster. We only really see his external struggles with the people around him.
His family relationship also suffers from the adaptation, although in this case that's a factor of time and not medium. We get the broad strokes, but there just isn't time to develop the nuances. This isn't a criticism of the movie, but someone who loves the book should be prepared. Cutting the text of even a short book to a mere one-hour-and-forty-three-minute will leave a lot of stuff on the floor.
Brooke actually gets a similar treatment. There just isn't much room in the film for Brooke, and I felt the loss. The first thing that my mother asked when the movie finished was if Brooke had a bigger role in the novel.
Also, the movie never says that the killer is a demon. While the book brings that out before John even realizes it, the movie leaves it as a bit of subtext at the very end.
But most of that is just the reality of adaptation. Not everyone can take a short book and translate it into three movies. Where the film shines is the relationship between John and Crowley.
The brilliance of the relationship carries through in the film. John fights his inner demons. He is incapable of love as we know it. He fights his own inner demons, trying not to become a monster. Meanwhile, Crowley is a literal demon, his methods are monstrous, but his motivation is love. He feels what John can't. He does what John fears. He is the perfect foil for John's character. Here is the one place the film couldn't fail and it does, indeed, succeed.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is available in select theater and more broadly in VOD. For a comprehensive list, see Dan's blog post, here.