The bond between fathers and sons is a sacred institution of the American ideal. In the Rockwellian archetype, that bond conjures potent imagery — playing catch, frank conversations about the facts of life, and teaching your boy the family business. But there’s also a less picturesque side to the tradition of inherited masculinity. There are the fathers who beat their sons, teaching them to channel anger through violence, those who oppress their sons less conventional desires in favor of maintaining their pride, the dads who profess piousness and purity while reveling in a life of sin. And of course, there are the monsters who wear the masks of family men while committing heinous, hideous crimes.
Those warped incarnations of American masculinity — the perversion of traditional values and the fear a rotted core at the heart of a flourishing father-son relationship — fuel the anxieties in IFC Midnight’s new serial killer thriller The Clovehitch Killer. A strikingly bloodless horror movie, directed by Duncan Skiles (The Last of the Great Romantics), The Clovehitch Killer opts for slow-burn dread and mounting paranoia in the place of overt violence, creating an intimate and understated set of thrills built around the relationship between a seemingly idyllic father-son duo.
Tyler (Charlie Plummer) is your average teenage boy living in the bible belt of an Everytown, America with his little sister, his god-fearing mother Cindy (Samantha Mathis) and his Scout Leader father Don (Dylan McDermott). He goes to school, he goes to church, he crushes on girls, and he learns things like gun safety and emergency preparedness from his dad during their regular scout meetings. It’s a picture perfect portrait of the nuclear family in Pleasantville. Except this quaint town has a dark past; a near-decade ago, a serial strangler known as The Clovehitch Killer (named after his favorite knot) stalked the town and murdered ten women.
The town commemorates the grisly crimes once a year, but otherwise, it’s a picturesque life for Tyler and his family. And it’s all hunky-dory until Tyler sneaks out with his dad’s truck one night in the hopes of impressing a girl and discovers a clipped piece of S&M pornography behind the seat of his father’s car. The pretty girl tells the school, Tyler gets a reputation among his conservative classmates for being a pervert, but worst of all, it shatters his perception of his father. The fires of curiosity lit, he breaks into dad’s shed and discovers a stack of kink porn magazine, certainly not what Tyler expects from Don’s altar boy image, but the real shock comes when he finds an old Polaroid of a woman bound and gagged with the note “Nora — Lucky’s favorite”. And then it hits him; his unassuming sweetheart of a father might just be the Clovehitch Killer.
Tyler quickly teams up with the local weird girl to investigate. A snappy and smart outcast with dark secrets of her own, Kassi (Madisen Beaty) is notoriously obsessed with the Clovehitch Killer, making her the perfect partner in crime-hunting. But Tyler’s investigations do not go unnoticed under Don’s watchful eye, and tensions quickly ramp up between the uneasy father and son as each tries to discover the truth about the others intentions. Is Don just trying to sideline a rebellious moment in his son or is he hiding something horrible? When Don takes Tyler aside for a man-to-man chat about you-know-what, his platitudes about sexuality, manhood, and “monkey stuff” have a sinister ring. He talks about controlling dark desires with too much authority and a bit too much hardness behind the twinkle in his eyes.
These moments of tension and dances of deception between Tyler and his father are the highlights of the film. No small thanks to McDermott, who gives a deliciously off-brand performance as the paunchy goober next door. It’s whip-smart casting — after all, McDermott has made a career out of his sex appeal and knack for playing dickheads, and it’s all to easy to believe there’s something darker and more deranged hiding under his good-old-dad smile. But Skiles also uses this opportunity to build terror out of intimacy, churning up a gurgling, uneasy fear that seeps through the veil of supposed safety in the home, corrupting the very caretaker who’s supposed to keep you safe; the patriarch, the protector… dad.
The Clovehitch Killer thrives during the scenes of suspense, but eventually the truth has to land on one side or the other, and when the action ramps up, the film becomes a bit more familiar, but still rather riveting. Skiles and his DP Luke McCoubrey shoot in precise lines, with sterile, unadorned shots that conjure the oppressive cleanliness and banality of life in a traditionalist small town, giving the film a retro quality that only further enhances the feeling of performative conservativeness. They maintain that tight, restrained grip during the film’s rare moments of violence, letting the humanity (or inhumanity) of any given situation wash over you in stark, unforgiving display rather than telling you how to feel about it.
The Clovehitch Killer is a smart, well-executed thriller that burrows into traditionalism and the image of the perfect all-American patriarch and finds the promise of something rotted and dangerous there. Skiles and screenwriter Christopher Ford prod at the pornographic, violent instincts often barely hidden just beneath the veneer of righteousness and uncover a darkly humorous and engrossing character study that’s both timely and timeless.