Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer is an emo slasher film that wears its depraved heart on its sleeve. This is evident from the opening scene, wherein a messy heap of bowels falls to the ground with a squishy plop. These wayward innards belong to what we eventually learn is the first victim of a serial killer suddenly let loose in a small Midwestern town. We watch this gruesome intro from the perspective of John (Max Records), a troubled teen who’s bullied at school and works at his single mother’s pathology lab. It turns out that John, according to his psychologist, is a sociopath with the psychological profile of a serial killer—a revelation that sets the stage for a young-adult spin on the standard serial-killer plot involving one psychopath using his or her psychotic insights to track down another.
There’s a stoic, antiseptic quality to the film’s extensive gore and violence that can be explained thematically if we accept that we’re seeing things from John’s point of view: The teenager’s lack of empathy for the dead and clinical interest in the gruesome details of the story’s murders can be easily chalked up to his psychological condition and professional experience at the family business, respectively. But this rationalization doesn’t save I Am Not a Serial Killer from finally being little more than an exploitative and humorless splatter film thinly disguised as a coming-of-age drama.
The film’s characters are driven by primitive emotions and only the most primal urges, which is especially disappointing in a work that pretends to be an examination of the difficulties of adolescence. The characters, from the obnoxious bully to the clueless principal, even the serial killer himself, are one-dimensional types; they may accurately reflect John’s immature view of the world, but O’Brien validates this perspective by justifying John’s behavior as a suitable response to a depraved world. This approach may appeal to the same demographic as the readers of the young-adult novel on which the film is based, but it comes unsettlingly close to being an apologia for the kind of violence that stems from adolescent disaffection.
Another blunder is the failure to explore John’s sexuality as a factor in his alienation and resulting murderous desires. The setup is there, in the form of a flirtatious girl next door, but the filmmakers inexplicably forego the opportunity to develop that subplot, which might have lightened the film’s oppressively dour atmosphere. The film even fails to offer insights into its ostensible themes: the oppressiveness of small-town life, the hopelessness of adolescent anxiety, and the difficulties of growing up in a broken home. There’s also something deeply retrograde about the way the scenario plays out, and not only because of the film’s ethnically homogenous cast. The serial killer is always an alien, a stranger among us, and his identity here highlights the way the filmmakers pander to their young audience. The identification of evil with age and goodness with youth reveals a puerile vision, which confuses a callow worldview with insight about the adolescent experience.