Producer: Duncan Skiles, Andrew Kortschak, Cody Ruder, Walter Kortschak and Christopher Ford
Director: Duncan Skiles
Writer: Christopher Ford
Stars: Dylan McDermott, Charlie Plummer, Samantha Mathis, Madisen Beaty, Lance Chantiles-Wertz, Brenna Sherman, Emma Jones, Jonathan Riggs, Kat Perez, Janet Scott and Mark Nash
Studio: IFC Midnight
Anyone who fondly recalls Joseph Ruben’s fine 1987 thriller “The Stepfather” (which, regrettably, spawned an inferior sequel two years later, and a mediocre remake in 2009) will probably enjoy “The Clovehitch Killer,” which recycles its major themes in a clever if slow-moving fashion. It also boasts a couple of impressive performances by Charlie Plummer and Dylan McDermott.
In the film, directed by Duncan Skiles from a script by Christopher Ford (”Robot & Frank,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), Plummer plays Tyler Burnside, a teen whose Kentucky family’s life centers on church and what might be called social service. That’s especially true of his dad Don (McDermott), a gregarious local handyman who also leads Tyler’s scout troupe. At home devoted mom Cindy (Samantha Mathis) takes care of the housework, her husband and son, and little daughter Susie (Brenna Sherman).
Tyler’s a good kid—indeed, almost frighteningly good and anxious about letting people, and especially Don, down—but he still has the usual teen needs, and late one night he borrows his dad’s truck for a tryst with pretty classmate Amy (Emma Jones). But as they snuggle, they find a photo of a woman in bondage scrunched on the inside of the seat. Amy presumes it’s Tyler’s and tells his schoolmates about his peculiar tastes, turning off even his best buddy Billy (Lance Chantiles-Wertz), a prim, fastidious kid who tolerates no deviancy and further blackens his reputation.
Knowing that the photo wasn’t his, Tyler begins to suspect that it belongs to his father, and grows increasingly interested in the tool shed Don keeps locked in the backyard. Breaking in, he finds a stash of hidden bondage magazines, as well as a packet of disturbing photos, leading him to suspect that Don might be the notorious killer who broke into ten women’s houses a decade earlier and tied them up with clove hitch knots before suffocating them; thus the murderer’s nickname.
Tyler joins forces with Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a girl considered the ultimate outsider and known for her fascination with the killer, to investigate further; she laughs off his suspicion about Don, but when he decides to look into the crawlspace beneath the family house, what he finds makes him even more distraught. Don, however, tearfully takes the boy into his confidence, with an explanation for everything: there is, he points out, a much more plausible suspect to explain a spree that had ended ten years ago. He then arranges for Tyler to go off to a leadership camp and for Cindy and Susie to go visit her relatives, leaving him free to…
Well, what he does is something viewers should find out for themselves. The same is true for how Tyler and Kassi react, and it is here that Ford and Skiles take a considerable risk, following events as they unfold from one perspective and then abruptly shifting back in time to portray them from another. There are, to be sure, problems with their method, and it’s not the only point at which the film stumbles a bit: one can certainly raise logical and psychological questions that you might feel it doesn’t satisfactorily address.
But while all the details might not add up, the overall effect is grimly compelling, because Plummer and McDermott offer such fine performance. The latter has the showier role, and McDermott seizes on the chance to balance an ostensibly jovial exterior with sinister undertones. But the film would not work were not Plummer—whose work in “Lean on Pete” was so remarkable—equally fine. He conveys Tyler’s shyness and fear, but also the boy’s underlying strength. It’s a subtle, nuanced turn. Beaty and Mathis both offer strong support, as do the rest of the cast, while production designer Latisha Duarte and costumer Jami Villiers Duarte fashion a convincing sense of place on a limited budget and cinematographer Luke McCoubrey captures it all simply and straightforwardly. Editors Megan Brooks and Andrew Hasse manage the last-act gyrations fairly dexterously.
“The Clovehitch Killer” burns slowly, but its restrained approach creates an unsettling mood and generates some genuine chills along the way, thanks to its two fine lead performances.