The Oxford Dictionary defines trauma as, “A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” This disturbing experience is always different for everyone. Those that face trauma can suffer pain from psychological abuse and others from physically taxing events. No matter the event, everyone reacts to said trauma differently. Some break down, some close up, some push through, and others don’t. It’s impossible to predict how people react to unimaginable situations. IFC Midnight’s The Clovehitch Killer, thrillingly demonstrates how a teenage sleuth handles the trauma begotten by sexual repression, fundamentalism, and secrecy.
Tyler (Charlie Plummer) lives in a small midwestern city where family and fundamentalist Christianity reign above all. He and his family live an all-American standard of community living by helping out at food drives, engaging with fellow church members, and participating in the boy scouts. Their community is small, but strong, plagued by the distant memory of the “Clovehitch Killer,” a serial killer who tortured, raped, and murdered women all but a decade ago. As Tyler accidentally falls upon bondage pornography in his dad’s truck, he finds evidence that his father, Don (Dylan McDermott), is not the American standard of fatherhood he once believed him to be.
The Clovehitch Killer is a thrilling and refreshing return to the serial killer mystery. While notable serial killer films like Zodiac and Se7en involve detectives and reporters searching for evil, in this film, the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy stays within the family. This fresh dynamic layers an unfathomable level of tension throughout the film, constantly gnawing at your soul as Tyler continues to piece the mystery together. Furthermore, this film doesn’t simply follow Tyler as he investigates his dad, using flashbacks and hidden clues to propel the story. Director Duncan Skiles seamlessly introduces this narrative device into the story at pivotal moments, satisfying the mystery at the cost of feeling overly expository at times. While there are some scenes that seem to drag, the film excellently keeps you connected and engaged with the story by dropping subtle clues and breadcrumbs throughout Tyler’s journey. Ultimately, while watching the film you figure out the mystery is all but solved, however, Skiles unravels the story quite excellently by flipping the story around a few times. It’s always hard to predict what comes next.
Watching a rising star’s journey is always exciting and it’s safe to assume that Charlie Plummer’s unquestionable talent and natural charisma should bring him an exciting, successful career. For this thriller, Plummer excellently brings boyish charm, haunted curiosity, and seasoned stoicism to a role demanding exponential graduation into manhood. He rapidly grows from the good Christian boy scout who only worries about girls, school, and leadership camp to an obsessed detective who can’t allow his father to terrorize their community any longer. Plummer completely escapes from fragility into vigor and it’s enthralling to watch.
Watching an established actors journey can be equally as exciting, especially if an actor simply needs a “renaissance,” like Matthew McConaughey, to restart their career. Dylan McDermott, whose career has been defined by syndicated television, certainly has the talent to propel himself into genuine stardom. In The Clovehitch Killer, he frighteningly disappears into an all-loving father who simultaneously lives a double life as a rapist, serial killer. McDermott is equally comforting and threatening, swiftly switching between loving and caring to demented and manipulative. With line delivery that sends chills down your spine, McDermott’s initial subtlety ferociously transforms into grandiose villainy — it’s difficult to watch.
Suburban life can be repressive, controlling, and boring. When your community, family, and church expect you to live within the confines of quaint, midwestern standards, expression is limited. The Clovehitch Killer brilliantly demonstrates how these standards can be equally restricting as they are comforting. The fundamentalism of the church and community has set unrealistic expectations on sexual relationships and sexual expression, ultimately birthing the traumatic Clovehitch Killer. This exploration of repression exudes timeliness and familiarity to the Catholic church’s epidemic scandal of sexual assault. The parallels are easily recognizable although not excessively heavy-handed, bringing on questions about the relationship between legalism, fundamentalism, and sexual repression.
The Clovehitch Killer thrills through exciting narrative devices, immersive acting, and thoughtful commentary. It’s a refreshing take on the serial killer mystery, providing twists and turns along the way. Its shocking ending is all but predictable, concluding Tyler’s exhaustive journey through trauma. While The Clovehitch Killer will often leave you feeling uncomfortable and helpless, it’s a thrilling reminder that it’s better to face your problems than to repress them.
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