Movies usually either ask us to fear or celebrate killers, but rarely see them as people who could be our friends and family members. the Clovehitch Killer is disquieting because it asks us to do exactly that — to visualize that the man across the pew from us at church, our scoutmaster and even our father could be a monster.
Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer) lives with his devoutly Christian family in Kentucky, in a small town whose residents have been haunted for a decade by the murders of the Clovehitch Killer. Our protagonist claims that he never really thought all that much of those crimes, other than being part of the ceremonies to celebrate the victims. One night, while attempting to sneak out and kiss a girl in his father’s truck, he discovers a torn up piece of bondage photography. This isn’t a Playboy thrown into the woods. It’s so upsetting that the girl cuts off their dalliance and starts rumors in school that the photo was his.
This discovery leads him to explore the places that his father — all-around family man Don Burnside (an incredible Dylan McDermott) — has kept hidden. This isn’t rooting around in your parent’s room looking for their copy of The Joy of Sex or a copy of Behind the Green Door (I’m dating myself and also presupposing that your parents had great taste in adult film). What he finds are explicit bondage-heavy magazines that look like Richard Kern shot them. And worse, a Polaroid of a woman. Her name leads him to hunt through Google, a late night search that leads his mother (Samantha Mathis) to believe he’s merely masturbating. If only things were that simple.
Tyler’s church and scout friends have kept him at arm’s length since the rumors of him being into BDSM started. He finds a friend in Kassi (Madisen Beaty, who was in The Master and will show up in Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time In Hollywood), who is absolutely obsessed with the Clovehitch murders — for a reason that pushes the film toward its harrowing conclusion. That said, if you’re living in a boring small town, I absolutely endorse hanging out with redheads obsessed with murder. I married one, after all.
On a camping trip, father confronts son about what he has found and claims that the real killer was Rudy, who up until now we’ve only known as a vegetative man in a wheelchair. The guilt of the murders caused him to try to kill himself by wrecking his car. Again — if it were only so simple.
There’s a narrative jump right after this scene that’s completely jarring. In fact, it’s so out there that we considered just turning the film off, as we’ve become used to the moments where modern thrillers inexplicably lose steam and go off the rails. This feels like that and I don’t want to spoil it, other than to say you’ll know it when you see it.
I’m pleased to report that we stuck with it and this becomes a movie with no easy answers or resolution. That’s pretty much how real life is, with no clean endings, just moving past things and hoping to survive until the next day.
Obviously, this film is inspired by Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, who also created collages of sexualized images, was a scout leader and seemed to be a normal family man. Writer Christopher Ford (Clown, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and director Duncan Skiles (who directed Ford’s The Felt series, as well as the stand-up specials of Reggie Watts) have taken that real-life story and created something that feels just as real.
This movie pretty much escaped notice when it was released last year, but I’d recommend it, particularly if you love true crime stories. It’s available on Hulu.