With a name like “The Clovehitch Killer”, you’re expecting a movie about a killer. Indie director Duncan Skiles delivers that — but with a twist. This is the story of a man who might be a killer, and Skiles’ taut, cleverly crafted script takes us on a ride to find the answer in the most ominous of backdrops: an all-American Kentucky town.
Part coming-of-age story, part thriller, this is classy indie filmmaking up there with The Guest and It Follows. Up and comer Skiles brings a chilling comedic touch to the family with a dark side. He’s not new to that tone — he was one of a group of filmmakers who parodied the RoboCop remake in 2014, before the remake came out.
In the browns and beiges of suburbia, quiet teenager Tyler (Charlie Plummer of Boardwalk Empire) spends his nights sneaking out to meet girls in his dad’s car. But one night mid-hookup he discovers a cutout from a porn magazine — that doesn’t belong to him. Night ruined, his suspicions turn to his dad Don (the brilliantly creepy Dylan McDermott), despite this squeaky-clean reputation as a boy scout leader and religious man.
Don dutifully instructs scouts on how to hold a flag for a memorial commemorating victims of the Clovehitch Killer, a still-at-large serial killer who bound and tortured women and left a “clove hitch” knot behind as a calling card.
The power dynamic between father and son shifts throughout, from Tyler helping back pain-afflicted Don lift heavy objects to Don hovering behind Tyler with a gun during a hunting trip. McDermott makes the father-son dynamic believable, flipping seamlessly from eloquent and charming dad to controlling patriarch, sometimes mid-sentence.
Other characters don’t fare so well. Tyler’s mother and sister play bit parts alongside the father and son’s cat-and-mouse dynamic. Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a high school journalist obsessed with the killings, is predictably weird. Her involvement with Tyler’s investigation is projected early on, leading to a predictable and uneventful trawl through newspaper clippings.
The Clovehitch Killer’s most successful moments bulge with subtext. This is evident in the scene where Don tells Tyler, “Men like you and me have thoughts.” With McDermott’s precision, thick glasses and chunky white sneakers, the line slides from funny father-son sex talk to chilling threat. If it weren’t for McDermott’s performance, some of Don’s manipulation of Tyler would be less believable. You’re almost crying, “Just call the police!” while Tyler umms and ahhs over the evidence before him.
But Don’s intriguing ideology, which includes statements such as, “Your body is a holy thing,” is ultimately left alone — disappointing given how it relates to the serial killer’s treatment of victims. There’s a predictability to events in the first half of the film, but a clear narrative shift in the second half works in the film’s favour. The last leg brings satisfying conclusions for the characters Skiles has taken pains to create.
The Clovehitch Killer twists an intriguing-enough knot with a satisfying final sequence. A brilliant performance from Dylan McDermott shines at the centre of this slow-burn thriller that carefully peels back a dark side to dull, suburban America.
The Clovehitch Killer has a limited release, creeping into theatres Nov. 16 in the US.
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