The Clovehitch Killer (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
“So you think your dad is the Clovehitch Killer?”
Here is a small and quiet suspense picture so confident with its premise—a teenager begins to suspect that his father might be the infamous murderer who has evaded the police for a decade—that nearly every passing scene, particularly during the first half, we lean a little closer to screen in order to capture and process every bit of information provided to us. Is our protagonist correct about his initial assumptions or is what we are seeing simply a case of a sheltered young man, raised as a devout Christian in a small town in Kentucky, who is unable to look at the big picture and so he ends up making a series of inaccurate conclusions?
Charlie Plummer plays Tyler, the teenager who is confronted by a girl he likes when she, sitting at the passenger’s side of his family’s truck, comes across a crumpled photograph of a woman tied up in a sexual position. Horrified and embarrassed, he claims the picture is not his but she does not believe him. Her body language suggests their date is over and she would like to be driven home. But Tyler knows precisely whom the picture belongs. And he intends to investigate the locked shed that his father, played by Dylan McDermott, frequents. It is in this moment that the film begins to gather momentum. Plummer shapes Tyler with an innocence so thick, we wonder should he end up facing the actual killer, would he even stand a chance?
The film is most tense during the investigative sequences: Tyler sneaking into the white shed at daybreak, finding a black box under a floorboards, looking closely at detailed blueprints, sneaking into a cramped place that welcomes visitors with a stench of death. Notice the lack of score or soundtrack. When a box is handled and contents inside move around the sound is deafening. When the camera focuses on photographs of suffering women who appear to be suffering, we could almost hear their whimpers. Great tension gathers during these drawn-out scenes because it is quiet and the camera is used as a magnifying glass. The threat of being found out looms from a couple of feet away.
Tyler is not the only interesting character. He meets Kassi (Madisen Beaty), the redhead with a reputation for sleeping with five football players. Pre-marital sex is sin in the eyes of the highly religious community. She hangs out outside the church to read. She also happens to be an expert when it comes to the Clovehitch murders; some might say it is her obsession. Kassi is the tougher of the duo, certainly less sheltered, and more communicative. I wished then that their partnership were explored further, perhaps injected with a bit of humor. While the pair’s chemistry works, at times it comes across as too safe, expected. It begs for another level of intrigue.
There is an interesting move about halfway through. That is, we leave Tyler’s perspective and the film focuses on the killer—or a possible killer: how he chooses his victim or “victim,” the stalking process, the rituals he feels he must adhere to, the objects in his duffel bag, the clothes he wears when he decides to take action. These details are shot in a matter-of-fact way. Emotions are muted; we are simply flies on a wall. To me, that is more unsettling than, for example, showing a hammer hitting a skull or a knife being plunged into another’s stomach. We feel the violence in the premeditation.
“The Clovehitch Killer” is written by Christopher Ford and he makes intelligent choices on a consistent basis—that is, until the last five minutes. The picture ends too abruptly with twists so knotty, one ends up staring at the screen with disbelief. Although it did not drop the ball completely, I did not buy into the final developments so readily because the majority of the work is so patient every step of the way. Thus, the conclusion feels off. It may have been more effective if the work were stretched past the two-hour mark. The denouement is rushed.