There’s nary a drop of blood, but a squirm factor of 10 to much of “The Clovehitch Killer.” This first theatrical feature for director Duncan Skiles, working from a strong screenplay by his past collaborator Christopher Ford (“Cop Car,” “Robot & Frank”), treads familiar ground in eking suspense from the viewpoint of a child who realizes a parent may have a sinister secret life. But this atypical serial-killer thriller distinguishes itself in resisting thrills — let alone any actual violence — till well past its halfway point, instead maximizing the quiet discomfort in a son’s rising suspicion that his outwardly Dagwood-type dad could be a notorious murderer. IFC Midnight plans simultaneous limited-theatrical and digital-formats release of the LA Film Festival-premiered film on Nov. 16.
Skiles, DP Luke McCoubrey, and the visual design contributors lend a vaguely ’70s aura to the goings-on, though the time appears to be “now.” This underlines a sense that the community in question, and the central family in particular, are doing their best to keep the modern world at bay. (The film was shot in Kentucky.) Indeed, teen Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer of “All the Money in the World” and “Lean On Pete”) lives in a very wholesome, throwback environment. His main occupations beyond school are the scout troop his roofer father Don (Dylan McDermott) oversees and activities related to the church that his entire family (including Samantha Mathis as mom Cindy) attends.
Nonetheless, Tyler isn’t entirely immune to normal teenage urges of the less-godly sort. One night he sneaks out for a rendezvous with classmate Amy (Emma Jones). It seems they might actually make it to first base or beyond when she accidentally discovers a photo scrunched up in a crevice of his father’s car: a very disturbing fetish picture of a woman in full bondage restraints. Though Tyler frantically disavows prior knowledge of the thing, by the next day his appalled date has let the entire school know he’s a “perv.”
He soon has even worse things to worry about, however, as a resulting fearful curiosity prompts him to poke around dad’s always-locked backyard toolshed. There, he finds hidden further evidence that Don just might be the “Clovehitch Killer” (named after a signature type of rope knot) who not long ago terrorized local women with 10 kinky murders. That spree ended a decade ago, and the perp remains uncaught. Needing to know whether his worst suspicions are true, Tyler becomes friends with Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a “weird” girl (she doesn’t even go to church!) known for her obsessive, sleuthing interest in those crimes. Once she realizes his true aim, she laughs off the idea that father Don is the killer. But the viewer has already realized that such levity is ill-advised.
By making it clear fairly early on that Don is not only guilty, but aware of the teenagers’ snooping around, Skiles and Ford lend innocuous activities — a family dinner, a camping trip — strong undercurrents of tension and potential violence. Carefully stopping short of caricature, McDermott’s unsettling performance gives Don a slightly false, forced edge. He’s acting the part of “normalcy,” and it is chilling how easily that masks slips when (this excavating of his hidden past having actually revived the impulses he’s been suppressing) he finds a pretext for sending the family away, and methodically sets about resuming his old “hobby” in their absence. Our evolving understanding of his character is so incremental that by the time we reach a home invasion all the more upsetting for its matter-of-factness, his behavior frightens not least because its surface is so familiar, even banal.
It is at this advanced point that the movie takes a structural risk, diverging from its hitherto straightforward chronology to backtrack and re-tell part of the story from a different perspective. The gambit at first derails the accumulated suspense. But it soon proves clever, credible, and lays the path to a satisfying resolution.
Plummer is very good in a role that carries much of the film’s weight. Beaty also does well in a part that might’ve played too stock “quirky girl,” but which she makes relatable — Kassie might fit in perfectly well anywhere else, but in this very conservative milieu, her mild noncomformity is treated as near-Satanic.
Those looking for standard horror-genre payoff in terms of gore, screaming, and jump scares will inevitably find “Clovehitch” too reticent and slow. But editors Megan Brooks and Andrew Hasse’s careful pacing builds considerable nervous anticipation. Matt Veligdan’s original score remains discreetly in the background until it takes over with a lovely, haunting closing-credits piano piece.