I’m always looking for that little cinematic gem that hardly gets any notice. As time goes by, I’ve become continuously jaded about the Hollywood blockbuster — especially the kind produced by a certain corporate Mouse. So whenever I come across a little indie film that has received rave reviews from reviewers I respect (in this case two men named Mike and Jay), I just have to check it out.
No, The Clovehitch Killer does have not any men in ridiculous outfits punching each other. The Clovehitch Killer was filmed on location, not behind a green screen (They actually still make those movies nowadays, would you believe it!) There was no fan-service or “wink wink” moments.
Instead, the film was something far more rewarding.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Duncan Skiles
Written By: Christopher Ford
Starring: Dylan McDermott, Charlie Plummer, Madisen Beaty, Samantha Mathis with Brenna Sherman and Lance Chantiles-Wertz as Billy
It’s been a decade since the serial killer known as ‘Clovehitch’ claimed his last victim. The town which was mostly affected by Clovehitch’s murderous antics erupts a memorial for his victims every year, which sixteen-year-old Boy Scout Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer) participates in.
Tyler lives in a tight-knit evangelical community, where ‘traditional values’ seems to be the norm. Sometimes this comes to the detriment of an individual’s personal identity, such as Tyler’s devout friend Billy (Lance Chantiles-Wertz) who seems to be a closeted homosexual.
The Burnsides are the kind of family who demand to spend time with each other. When Tyler suggests he wants to do some volunteering work, his mother (Samantha Mathis) reminds him that he should not forget to spend time with his family. While playing card games or doing chores, a Christian radio channel plays in the background, reminding the family of their Christian duties.
Tyler’s father Don (Dylan McDermott) is the Boy Scout leader mentoring Tyler. Tyler seems to be following his father’s example, becoming the model citizen of Christian America.
One night, however, Tyler discovers some possible incriminating evidence which could indicate that his father might have been upholding a murderous hobby for many years. Could Don, the all-American, do-gooder father, be the Clovehitch Killer?
Duncan Skiles is not the type of director you’d immediately associate with this kind of material. In fact, there’s a big chance that you have never even heard of him. Nevertheless, Skiles has been working for quite some time in the business.
Since 2008 Skiles has been working both on and off as director and editor. His resume varies from music video’s, documentary shorts, TV shows and before The Clovehitch Killer he had directed only one movie: 2014’s The Last of the Great Romantics.
The Last of the Great Romantics was made on a $60,000 budget, funded mostly through Kickstarter funds. As you could probably guess, the subject matter of The Last of the Great Romantics has no relation to the atmospheric dread that The Clovehitch Killer is permeated with. The Last of the Great Romantics is a charming little romantic comedy, whose extremely short length (65 minutes!) makes it an ideal time waster — and I say this as someone who absolutely loathes romantic comedies.
Skiles also participated in the hilarious Our Robocop Remake, which had several filmmakers recreate different segments of Paul Verhoeven’s classic but with a comedic twist. Skiles’ efforts isn’t the highlight of the film — scene 28 in case you were wondering — but it’s certainly one of the better ones. Though once again, it has no indication that he’s capable of directing a serial killer themed thriller.
But here we are. The Clovehitch Killer feels like the work of a confident director whose been working on the genre and subject matter for years. Apparently the director himself was inspired by David Fincher’s Zodiac, and you do find Fincher’s meticulous sensibilities here.
And while The Clovehitch Killer won’t reach the classic status of Zodiac, it’s a film that deserves far more attention than it has been given.
Another Excellent Script by Christopher Ford
Despite Skiles’ impressive effort, we shouldn’t neglect to mention Christopher Ford’s excellent script. Ford’s resume has been incredibly diverse, having scripted masterful independent films such as the science fiction drama Robot and Frank and thriller Cop Car (my personal favorite) to big blockbuster fare like Spider-Man: Homecoming — though as would expected with a big studio film, numerous other writers were on board to make sure the film is as commercially viable as possible.
While I do have a few issues with The Clovehitch Killer‘s script — mostly regarding the less interesting second half — it is once again a solid effort from a wonderfully diverse screenwriter who I hope continues to churn out interesting and, most of all, original work.
A Possible Career Best for Dylan McDermott
If you’re a fan of either TV or cinema, you’ve probably seen Dylan McDermott at some point. He has graced the screen with his handsome features and delicate charm in a range of different genres and roles. Some might know him from the beloved legal drama The Practice or horror anthology show American Horror Story. Other people might know him the brutal war drama Hamburger Hill, chick flick classic Steel Magnolias or the little known drama The Tenants in which he stars alongside rap legend Snoop Dogg. (I just had to mention this film in here.)
McDermott has never really been a massive star but you never get the feeling that this is what he was pursuing. He seems to enjoy being a character actor. Sometimes it seems like his good looks — perfect for your standard Hollywood romantic comedy — get in the way of snatching those precious character-actor-based roles.
Initially director Skiles wasn’t entirely convinced about casting McDermott either. When co-star Samantha Mathis became aware of the casting, she couldn’t see how McDermott could adequately portray the wholesome scout leader father who could very well be a serial killer. But McDermott had actively pursued this role, sending Skiles a tape in which he perfectly emulates an American Midwestern accent, changed his hair and suppressed his Hollywood charm. After some modifications to his appearance, such as a prosthetic belly, McDermott suddenly became the perfect choice to play Don Burnside.
It’s hard to talk about this role without spoiling too much. Needless to say McDermott might have displayed a career best performance here, especially because as a viewer you’re constantly doubting whether or not he’s the titular serial killer or not. Even though I myself wouldn’t have initially cast McDermott either if I had read the script, after seeing this film it’s hard picturing anyone else as Don Burnside. Here’s hoping that — thanks to this film — McDermott will be offered the chance to play in more character-driven roles.
We Shouldn’t Forget About Charlie Plummer
Charlie Plummer, who also impressed in the A24 produced Lean on Pete, proves once again that he’s one of the finest young actors working right now. No matter how incredible McDermott is, the film ultimately hinges on Charlie Plummer’s performance, the heart of the story. It’s about Tyler’s journey to adulthood, about the deterioration of his wholesome family life, his loss of innocence and the eventual painful decisions he must make along the way.
Plummer imbues the perfect amount of fragility and awkwardness of the child traversing through adolescence. Having been brought up in a classical evangelical household, he’s now forced to consort with an outsider, Kassi (Madisen Beatty), to find answers. Kassi herself has been branded as a promiscuous heretic because she refuses to be part of a church. Tyler’s friend Teddy chastises him for spending time with her, partly because of the false rumors surrounding her (but mostly because she’s an atheist). But whatever she believes in, she’s the only person that can help Tyler discover the truth.
It’s also Plummer’s understated performance that truly sells particularly moving climax of the film. Naturally I’m not going to spoil it here but the last few shots and words will certainly stick with you.
The Fascinating Setting
We get to witness the family’s wholesome routines: going to church, praying before dinner, listening to Church radio while clipping coupons with the mother, participating in Boy Scout traditions to going hunting. For a lot of people, this is how life really is. For others (like me) this is feels like an alien world.
And while the film obviously takes some pot-shots at the underlying darkness beneath, the film never judges the community itself. It only judges the inability to confront certain painful truths. We see how the need for conformity in such circles should never come in the price for one’s own individual desires; otherwise you might end up becoming judgmental like Tyler’s friend Teddy.
It also shows that no matter how kindly some individuals may seem, their brand of depravity may exceed your wildest nightmares. One must remember that the infamous BTK killer (aka Dennis Rader) was a scout leader and a devout churchgoer. He was beloved by the community. Nobody had any clue who he really was.
You can dress as unassuming as you want; go to church as many times you want; and have a wife and family. But you can never escape yourself. As the great Buckaroo Banzai would say: “no matter where you go, there you are.”
The Second Half is Not as Interesting as the First Half
The problem with many mystery/thriller is that the answers given aren’t nearly as interesting as the mystery itself. Usually, the build-up towards these answers are much more interesting and this can lead to disappointment. So when the central question is eventually answered in The Clovehitch Killer it does unfortunately become less interesting. The second half of the film also suddenly takes a drastic narrative shift. While this ultimately leads to a satisfying climax, the tension felt in the initial first half is absent.
As stated before, the ending is certainly memorable. This is not so much for the amped suspense but for the emotions surrounding it. If the second half would have led to a lukewarm climax, the film would have been a well-acted but ultimately forgettable film.
Strangely, this is the second review I’ve done about a coming-of-age movie that involves a serial killer — the first one being Summer of ’84. And while I liked that film, partly for its eighties aesthetics and synth-wave soundtrack, there’s no denying that The Clovehitch Killer is so much more effective. Not only does it work as a slow-burning thriller, it also works as an interesting depiction of Christian America.
We witness a career best performance from Dylan McDermott and the rise of an incredible diverse director. It might not make even half a percentage point of what the upcoming Lion King remake will make, but it has so much more to offer.
And for all my obvious love of gore and sleazy thrills (see my Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich review for evidence), this is another, very different example how horror and suspense can be done too. It’s a film with hardly any action beats and zero gore that works due to the atmosphere and great performances.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on The Clovehitch Killer? Comment down below!
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