In 2018, The Clovehitch Killer was among several indie thrillers that created positive buzz. Critics were reasonably impressed with the serial killer movie. Sadly, the critical buzz only translated into a very limited theatrical release last fall. Now IFC Midnight has released the thriller onto several VOD-streaming services.
Tyler Burnside lives a perfectly normal life in small-town America. Like something out of a postcard, Tyler has a loving family with a hardworking father. When he isn’t volunteering at the town church, Tyler is a Boy Scout where his father is also troop leader. But 10 years ago, Tyler’s idyllic town was haunted by ‘The Clovehitch Killer’. The serial killer murdered 10 women; he was never captured. When Tyler discovers unsettling photographs in the family shed, he begins to suspect that his father may be the same serial killer.
The Clovehitch Killer Will Get Under Your Skin
First, let’s get a couple of things out of the way. The Clovehitch Killer will disappoint audiences expecting blood and gore. If you want a horror movie jammed with jump scares and quick edits, The Clovehitch Killer may underwhelm. Aside from its subject matter, The Clovehitch Killer is more aptly described as a psychological thriller. Like the 2017 indie thriller Super Dark Things, this is a quiet and methodical movie. Director Duncan Skiles has other things on his mind other than getting you to jump out of your seat.
Instead, The Clovehitch Killer is a slowburn that bluntly confronts its audience with the horror of what’s transpiring on screen.
With regard to its pacing and style, The Clovehitch Killer is an introspective thriller. Specifically, Skiles adopts an almost casual approach to his horrific subject matter. By and large, Skiles strips always superfluous distractions from Dylan McDermott’s depraved ‘Don Burnside’. That is, Skiles doesn’t use quick edits or a crescendo of music to imbue his killer with menace. Instead, The Clovehitch Killer is a slowburn that bluntly confronts its audience with the horror of what’s transpiring on screen. For instance, the home invasion scene is stripped of traditional film signifiers of suspense. Skiles’ approach to Burnside’s actions feels almost detached. It’s more unnerving than scary, but it will get under your skin.
The Mundane Nature of Evil
Much of The Clovehitch Killer is consumed with the banality of evil. Similar to last year’s Summer of ‘84, writer Christopher Ford immerses you in the drab plainness of Tyler’s life. Ford opts to frequently highlight how traditional the Burnside family is on the surface. Overall, it’s this banality that when juxtaposed with Don Burnside’s true nature that gives the movie its shocking effect. Just a few quick images of Don’s disturbing pornography collection contrasted with his ‘Leave It To Beaver’ life is jarring. Like Skiles’ film style, it’s the almost ‘matter-of-fact’ nature of Don’s ‘torture room’ blueprint that haunts.
Though it’s a slow film, the story surprises with timeline and perspective shifts.
Other serial killer movies have also focused on the superficial normalcy of evil. But The Clovehitch Killer does it with an uncharacteristic level of restraint. Though it’s a slow film, the story surprises with timeline and perspective shifts. There’s enough atmosphere and narrative twists to keep the movie from feeling formulaic.
Dylan McDermott Delivers a Haunting Performance
Since his role in The Practice, Dylan McDermott has quietly impressed. No, he’s not a flashy actor or celebrity that headlines big pictures. But McDermott has consistently turned in noteworthy performances. Not unlike his career, McDermott gives quietly affecting performance as ‘Don Burnside.’ Nothing about McDermott’s characterization feels exaggerated or over-the-top. It’s a grounded performance that gets under you skin. Most importantly, it’s a performance that, like the movie, shows rather than tells. When McDermott rages on a bed in one scene, it says more about his character than any expository dialogue.
McDermott’s performance is capably balanced by understated but strong supporting roles. As Tyler Burnside, Charlie Plummer aptly conveys his character’s emotional conflict. Veteran Samantha Mathis makes the most of her screentime, but Ford’s screenplay most regulates her character to the background. Arguably, Madisen Beaty gives the the most unexpectedly head-turning performance.
The Clovehitch Killer a Restrained Thriller
The Clovehitch Killer is a restrained thriller that patiently unveils its shocks. While the similar Summer of ‘84 often dragged, Skiles’ thriller always maintains a sense of purpose. This may be due in part to how the movie drops you into Don Burnside’s world. The result is to maintain a more consistent sense that potential threat lurks around the corner. Though it’s methodically paced, The Clovehitch Killer is an unnerving thriller.