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It’s been said that when you live in a zoo, you kill more things than you keep alive: scores of mice to feed the reptile house, for instance. Considering that an estimated 96.8 percent of all humanity eats meat, you’ve probably helped murder countless cows, chicken, pigs and fish just to read this website. We’re all vampires to some degree, taking life to prolong our own in this vast zoo we call Earth.
Many feel scared to reckon with our place in the food chain because we’d like to think we’re good, gentle people, but we’re animals; the urge to kill has been in us since Cain and Abel. As Americans, we’re also fascinated by serial killers, partly to understand our own homicidal impulses, how much pain we can endure and what, if anything, stops us from murdering.
John Cleaver, the young protagonist of Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not A Serial Killer, shares this morbid fascination: he embalms bodies at his mother’s mortuary, he writes school papers on Jeffrey Dahmer and the BTK Killer and his therapist diagnoses him as a sociopath, advising him to compliment his bullies instead of driving a fork into their jugulars.
John (played by Max Records, the kid from Where the Wild Things Are) lives an isolated existence in the rural town of Clayton, Minnesota — he comes from a broken home, has only two friends (an outcast schoolmate and his elderly neighbor, played by Christopher Lloyd), and he has become obsessed over the town’s new serial killer: a person (or thing) that literally tears out people’s insides.
To protect himself, John spends his time reading about murderers and the occult in his school library and begins stalking his neighbors, curious about which ones might be the killer. Naturally, John himself could be the killer too; after all, he’s always around whenever another victim drops dead. But his societal rage is just one of many possible motives.
Truth is, in the snowy midwest, lots of potential killers surround John — hunters, policemen, disaffected teenagers, sickly elders and grieving relatives — each with their own reasons to slay, whether in defense of a loved one or in blind fear and hatred. Director Billy O’Brien implicates his viewers in the act: most of us see everyday killings all around us — in foreign wars, under-funded hospitals and urban streets — and very few of us do anything to stop them; we call it life, we call it Earth.
The true horror in O’Brien’s comic-thriller doesn’t come from its murderous culprit, it comes from the harms we inflict on each other every day, the relationships we sever and the many small deaths that slowly turn people into legendary killers.