‘Curiosity killed the cat’ is a piece of wisdom that virtually all of us should be familiar with. And if we are, we probably also know that curiosity is not a cat exclusive trait – it’s likewise a very human characteristic. The main pillars in our lives are certainties that we base most of our interactions on – things that are so well internalised in our belief system that need no daily enforcement in order to be sustained. However, when something casts a symbolic shadow over such a belief, the tiniest flicker of doubt sets in. And no matter how small it is, or how much we would like to simply shove it away, it is there, and it invites investigation. This is mostly because such a potentially conflicting idea creates dissonance, which we as a species have been proven time and time again to seek to alleviate it.
It all starts with a photo
The Clovehitch Killer starts with such a premise. Tyler is a teenager who seems to be doing quite well for himself, despite his family’s not-so-rosy financial condition. He’s relatively popular at school, thus he finds it rather easy to book dates with some of the prettiest girls around. Furthermore, he really looks up to his dad: a pillar in the small-town community, who also serves as the leader of the local boy scout group. This initially positive atmosphere is broken early on by the accidental discovery of a photo cropped out of a BDSM magazine, featuring a bound woman, in Tyler’s dad’s car. The news spreads before too long, the boy subsequently undergoes a process of being marginalised by his friends and classmates, and as a result, he befriends Kassi, a girl accustomed to such a ‘special treatment’ by the overly-religious local community. This misconception also stems from, surprise-surprise, more unfounded accusations that got spread around by pretty much everybody in town. In case this is a directed dig at religious folk and how little they base their judgement on actual, hard evidence, I can only applaud it. And, in case it’s incidental, I’ll applaud it just the same.
But delving into a sociological study of small-town conservative US is not the main point of the film. The reason why the photo of a bound woman causes such a stir is because 10 years prior to the events presented in the film, the town was terrorised by a serial killer, who kidnapped 13 women and killed them, while taking photos of them in various awkward positions. Who the killer was and why the killings had stopped all of a sudden, nobody knows. However, finding the cropped out photo, which Tyler can only blame his father for, makes him very uneasy, and thus he begins a more thorough investigation around the house. And, accessing a crawlspace just under the ground floor, he finds a bunch of peculiar stuff hidden inside a box – among it, the driving licenses of the 13 killed women. Certainly, things don’t look good for Don, his dad, and the new discovery brings about a difficult moral dilemma.
Difficult days in difficult times
That’s a half-decent premise for a psychological thriller, isn’t it? It reminded me a little bit of the recent Summer of ’84, a somewhat similar sort of teenage investigation of a potential serial killer. Judging by the flip phones, the computers running on Windows XP and browsing with an old version of Internet Explorer, the setting here should be somewhere around 2008 – perhaps as a means to tie in with the financial chaos brought about by the economic downturn. And, as cool as those times were if we do not include the availability of capital into the equation, the film does almost nothing with its choice of era. But that’s not The Clovehitch Killer’s biggest sin. The most significant problem is that it tries to bite more than it can chew – and fails spectacularly.
The most notable non-sequitur that the film engages in is spelling the likely identity of the killer very early on. Further plot twists are rather weak and fail to push for a paradigm shift that gives the audience at least a few potential choices, and keeps them wondering for an acceptable amount of time. Even with the balance leaning heavily to one side, not all is lost – after all, we all knew what Hannibal was up to in Silence of the Lambs, and yet we still got the watch an absolute masterpiece. Perhaps in an effort to achieve a similar outcome, The Clovehitch Killer shifts its perspective from the investigative party to the investigated party at several points in the second half. The bad news is that it would have been indeed very difficult to go about this in a worse way than the film does. By engaging in this practice, The Clovehitch Killer not only alleviates any grain of doubt that might have been left in the audience’s mind, but also leads to major overlaps in information – the scene where we get a rewind only to watch it unfold from a different perspective is borderline pathetic and achieves very little in the end.
Each serial killer film has a choice of lens through which it’s going to reveal its secrets to the audience. We could either follow one of the parties or the other, thus ending up with a subjective focus. Instead of combining these two perspectives in order to get the best of both worlds, the film sort of weaves the two, but in a way which makes most of the important plot points completely predictable. Sure, it leaves some avenues open to interpretation – what and how much does Tyler’s mother know, and what exactly happened to Tyler’s uncle 10 year before – but all in all, none of these discussion points are very interesting. Whereas Summer of ’84 more or less skillfully jumped a few pacing hoops to bring about a conclusion that was shocking and meaningful in a more generalisable fashion, The Clovehitch Killer feels almost dismissive of its final hurrah.
Sloppy gets the work (partly) done
So far, I haven’t said too many good things about The Clovehitch Killer. The plot limits options instead of widening the available array, most of the major turning points feel oddly coincidental and convenient, and while the distribution of personas to characters seeks to build on stark contrasts, not a lot of though seems to have been put in many of these decisions. For someone who kidnapped and killed 13 women back in the day, in a small town no less, and cleverly evaded the authorities, the killer seems awfully sloppy and non-methodical. And that’s perhaps the perfect unintended metaphor for the film itself – and the only one, since it is too lazy to indulge in any of the potential for such an indirect exploration of the topic. In the beginning of the film, when Don was giving his son a semi-serious talk about growing up, he mentioned rash decisions made in the spur of the moment, without much thought behind them. I was notably excited, since I expected this to somehow reflect either the past chain of events, or any future unfolding of the story. It reflected neither.
The one saving grace of The Clovehitch Killer, besides Duncan Skiles’ decent direction, is the acting. I haven’t personally watched Dylan McDermott in a horror/thriller role since the first two seasons of American Horror Story, but he’s just as good as I remembered. He continuously adds nuance to his ‘dad of the year’ character, and steals each and every scene. Likewise impressive are the two teenagers, Tyler (Charlie Plummer) and Kassie (Madisen Beaty) – while their interactions and relationship do fall heavily into stereotype territory, they perform admirably and show much promise for the future. Moreover, I was thrilled (as thrilled as one can be in a rather underwhelming context) to notice that the film never turned into a full-fledged horror, but rather chose to stay true to its psychological angle and emphasise the conflicting thoughts that must have been passing through the main character’s head at different points throughout its runtime. Unfortunately, this is not enough to save the film from mediocrity. There’s no point where it gets bad or even cringy, but it simply lacks the necessary substance to feel fresh and memorable. Save for one or two striking moral dilemmas, I doubt I could still tell you much about this film in a few months’ time.