Tyler (Charlie Plummer) is an average, all american teenager: he volunteers as a scout leader and attends church, he is preparing his College admission, he has a great family life with mom Cindy (Samantha Mathis) and little sister Susie (Brenna Sherman) and, most significantly, he idolizes his father Don (Dylan McDermott).
Then one day Tyler goes on a date with choir girl Amy (Jones Emma) and she makes an unusual discovery nestled beside the seat in the family truck: a pornographic image of a woman in bondage. In an odd narrative blip that doesn’t quite make sense, she assumes that the image is Tyler’s — as opposed to his father’s, which is far more likely — and he quickly gains a reputation as a pervert.
More significantly, however, the porn makes Tyler realize that there’s more to his straight-laced father than he suspected. After a quick investigation, Tyler quickly becomes enveloped in a mystery that makes him question if his father is connected to dormant local serial killer the Clovehitch Killer, who strangled ten victims a number of years before.
The Clovehitch Killer excels in its first half when screenwriter Christopher Ford takes aim at the hypocrisy and secrets that underlie suburbia. The opening scenes firmly establish the town’s conservative and religious points of view, which are especially pronounced in the near hysterical reaction of Tyler’s best friend Billy (Lance Chantiles-Wertz) to the rumours of his “perversion”. This is a place that upholds traditional values because the idea of danger, violence or vice hiding behind the closed doors of pillars of the community is too terrible to consider. It’s also one of the reasons why the unsolved Clovehitch murders loom so large in the public consciousness.
The first half of the film is dedicated exclusively to Tyler’s investigation. Once he catches a glimpse of the incriminating evidence, however, Tyler simply can’t let it go. As he begins to look into the murders, he teams up with Kassi (Madisen Beaty) — much to the chagrin of Billy, who frets that the outcast with a reputation is a bad influence who will lead Tyler astray.
Unfortunately around the halfway point of the film, the narrative shifts away from Tyler for nearly an entire act. By abandoning its protagonist, The Clovehitch Killer loses its way and its narrative urgency, even if Tyler eventually returns front and center when the story doubles back to catch up with him. The decision to leave the teen behind for another character may appeal to those who like their comedy pitch black, but the unusual decision comes at the expense of pacing or tension, making the second half of the film feel protracted and listless.
The Clovehitch Killer nearly redeems itself in its last act as the two timelines once again coverage, particularly the taunt and surprisingly emotional final resolution, but the film never quite recovers from its ill-advised detour. It’s a shame, too, because three quarters of the film is really solid and enjoyable.
McDermott is allowed the most range and proves surprisingly adept in a role that requires him to be both serious and (surprisingly) comedic. The true star, however, is Charlie Plummer, who is quietly revelatory in the role of Tyler. It’s an extremely understated performance, but Plummer absolutely commands the screen. Director Duncan Skiles frequently locks the camera on Plummer’s face in close-up, forcing the young actor to carry the film’s dramatic moments without resorting to histrionics. Beaty is also strong, though her supporting role means that she is afforded not only less screen time, but her dramatic connection to the murders – which could be an arc unto itself – is disappointingly muted and less substantial than it should be.
The Clovehitch Killer is without reservation worth seeking out. The finished film would be stronger were it not for the misguided creative decision to cut away from Tyler, but the climax and stirring final coda nearly redeems it. Skiles’ direction and Plummer’s performance, plus the focus on darkness permeating a small town suburbia, lends the film a My Friend Dahmer-esque vibe that will undoubtedly attract a sizeable following when the film becomes widely available on VOD and DVD.