Ever since their integration into pop culture during the ‘70s, America’s morbid obsession with the deranged inner-demons and manifested violence of serial killers has only grown over the decades. Directors like David Fincher have obsessively carried the torch of this fascination for years (“Zodiac” and more recently, “Mindhunter”) and independent entities and filmmakers alike have followed suit. This texture brings us to director Duncan Skiles’ latest project, the seemingly Fincher-inspired “The Clovehitch Killer.” A concept which emerged from Skiles’ brief but intense obsession with serial killers a few years back, “The Clovehitch Killer” is a chilling and conflicting portrait of a mid-America tragedy enhanced by familial dramatics.
Unraveled through the eyes of confused adolescence, “Clovehitch” follows Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer), a rather obedient and amiable teenager. Tyler’s family is the prototypical conservative, evangelical lower-middle class collective barely scraping by financially. Nevertheless, the Burnsides are a cozy and grateful bunch within their small, hyper-religious town, and Don (Dylan McDermott) Tyler’s father, is a seemingly kind community leader and the boy scout headmaster. Everyone looks up to Don, especially Tyler. However, Don’s jolly persona is slowly unraveled until a more sinister core is revealed. One early morning, Tyler finds disturbing BDSM pornography hidden in his father’s truck and then, stumbles upon something even more shocking and repulsive, the IDs of what turns out to be missing women his father had tortured beneath the floorboards of his shed and the crawl space of their home. As hints of his disturbing fetish evolve into more significant implications, Tyler begins to suspect his dad may be Clovehitch, a serial killer who has tormented their town for years but has yet to be found.
In an attempt to unearth the truth, Tyler teams up with town’s outcast, Kassi (Madisen Beaty), who’s obsessed with the Clovehitch legend herself. To discover the truth about his father before he hurts anyone else, Tyler is forced to confront all that he has known and unconditionally loved.
“The Clovehitch Killer” is a film teeming with irony and jarring juxtaposition, most, if not all associated with Tyler’s father. As mentioned before, Don is a seemingly loving, happy-go-lucky family man. Though on the outside he’s a living embodiment of Ned Flanders, a bible-thumper who tells cheesy jokes and forbids his children from drinking any soda, his true self is clouded by repulsive obsessions and evil behavior.
You have to applaud McDermott for pulling off such a stark and cryptic dichotomy. Even when it is clear that Don is the Clovehitch Killer through his obsessions with knot tying and hidden photos of bound and gagged women, he proudly wears a “#1 Dad sweater,” jokingly has “the sex talk” with his son and rattles off theological principals when he feels Tyler is up to no good. Nevertheless, there are striking instances where Don’s gleeful, dorky demeanor creepingly reveals his psychotic id.
When Don is explaining to Tyler the “sacredness of sex,” he mentions that “[The] body is a holy image, not to be desecrated.” Clearly, Don does not abide by his own words, in fact, the veiled murderer furthers the uncomfortable conversation by rationalizing his own obsessive, sexual thoughts to his son, “You can’t control what pops into your head, right?” The level of humor and jubilance in which McDermott delivers these lines is sickening yet, lends the film a slight, darkly comedic spin to the serial killer archetype.
Dr. John Leibert, a psychiatrist who was a consultant during the investigation of the Green River Murders in the ‘90s once said of serial killers, “They are very invisible…If you look for the obvious, you don’t get it. But they are usually right in front of your face.” Leibert’s words eerily apply to Tyler’s perception of his father. Even though there are clues that his father is a murderous predator right in front of his face, Tyler struggles to grasp this reality until the film’s final moments.
Though his slow resolve is deliberately frustrating, Tyler’s gradual awareness to the reality of his father makes “The Clovehitch Killer” come across as much of a coming-of-age drama than it is a thriller/horror. Once again, Plummer shines as a toiling teenager—he internalizes trauma with genuine expression and delivers his lines in full believability. With his performance in “Lean on Pete” and now “The Clovehitch Killer,” Plummer is quickly becoming one of the brightest young acting talents around.
“The Clovehitch Killer” is overall, a stunning indie thriller from IFC Midnight. It’s not only a realistic portrait of a conservative Middle America but a devastating portrayal of what happens when a family goes murderously awry. Also, Skiles does an incredible job at subverting genre tropes with dialogue and scenes that coexist in irony and hilarity. With moments of murderous intent occurring in broad daylight and dialogue that spurns that of conventional thrillers, “The Clovehitch Killer” must be seen devoid of expectations. [B]