A sparse and genuinely scary serial killer flick that’s at its best when it subverts our expectations.
The Clovehitch Killer is in theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD on November 16.
The contemporary idea of a serial killer is a very American phenomenon. In IFC’s new offering The Clovehitch Killer, director Duncan Skiles and writer Christopher Ford dissect it with chilling accuracy.
Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer) is a young upstanding citizen from a small town in Kentucky that a decade ago was ravaged by a spate of serial killings which were never solved. The murders are the proverbial ghost which haunt the town, with an annual remembrance attended by all local citizens from the adults who survived it to the children who weren’t even alive when the killings began. It’s a perfect representation of the hold that these killers have on the national psyche, taking over and quickly becoming an obsession, especially when they evade capture.
The repression of Tyler and the town he lives in is made palpable by Skiles’ tight direction. Our protagonist’s small and safe world is rocked when he borrows his dad’s truck for a date and the girl he invites into it finds some bondage porn. Tyler’s apparent indiscretion quickly makes its way around town and it opens up an underbelly that the Boy Scout had no idea existed. Plummer shines as a teen out of his depth, wide-eyed and confused by the rapidly unfurling new world which is opening up around him.
Skiles and Ford utilize the “dark side of suburbia” trope to explore the dangers of small town rumors and the insidious nature of victim-blaming and slut-shaming. It’s refreshing to see the subtle ways that a film about the ultimate form of toxic masculinity can quietly challenge it. But the bulk of the film’s conflict comes from Tyler’s ever-growing suspicion that his Scout Leader father (Dylan McDermott) is the notorious killer known as Clovehitch–after his favorite knot–who killed ten women before Tyler was even born.
McDermott is utterly terrifying as Tyler’s father, Don. Every scene between him and Plummer flickers with tension and danger as the pair navigate the widening gulf between them. The addition of Madisen Beaty’s Cassi brings a teen detective subplot into the mix as the duo team up and attempt to solve the mystery of the killer. Beaty is great as a young woman abandoned and shunned by her peers who’s filled her time with an almost obsessive interest in the notorious killings. It’s an authentic pairing that never seems forced and it’s nice to see a woman given agency in a film that’s essentially centered around the torture and murder of women.
There’s an honesty to the exploration of small town life that Skiles and Ford deliver here, from the ‘cool’ youth pastor to the way gossip travels to the central church that dictates the lives of the surrounding community. The film bothers to pay attention to the small interactions and human moments that fill the silence and space, and it grounds the more gruesome glimpses of the crimes and ever-escalating fantasies of the Clovehitch killer.
An exercise in building tension and the slow burn of the first two acts lead to a finale almost pulsating with fear and anticipation. As viewers we’re ultimately given the role and responsibility of voyeurs, aware of the horrors that will likely come to pass but unable to stop them. It’s the subtleties that are scariest here as we watch routines slightly change and pick up on the small things that no one around the killer can. It’s a brilliant use of dramatic irony from Skiles and Ford, serving to make it a little harder to swallow when the film does eventually fall into the tropey, relatively graphic torture of women.
It’s interesting to think about what films like this really bring to the larger narrative around serial killers and the iconoclastic way they’re treated in popular culture. The Clovehitch Killer definitely feels a lot less exploitative than most films in the serial killer subgenre, and it clearly attempts to highlight the apparent normalcy of so many of the most notorious murderers throughout history. But in the end doesn’t making films about fictional versions of these men just serve to create more of a mythology around them? It’s not a question that The Clovehitch Killer answers, and though the film is definitely not a glamorization of the mindset and misogyny that drives so many of these crimes, the end of the second act definitely has a moment when it leans too hard into the age old trope of fetishizing violence against women as well as also briefly touching on the transphobic “crazed crossdresser” angle.
However, a surprising finale saves the day as the creative team flips our expectations on their head. They even give us a little reprieve, allowing us to journey alongside not only the killer but also his eventual captors during a seemingly normal afternoon that turns stunningly dark and throbs with suspense. Despite some bumps along the way, in the end The Cloverhitch Killer manages to deliver a satisfying conclusion that offers closure and catharsis, cementing this as a seriously interesting addition to serial killer canon.