For one thing, it’s really not all that thrilling, at least by the jump-scare, bet-you-didn’t-see-that-coming standards of today’s “thrillers.”
Instead, “Clovehitch” relies on excellent performances and brisk dialogue from writer Christopher Ford to build tension scene by scene, while deliberately walking the audience through a plot that without the exceptional craft of the filmmakers is fairly paint-by-numbers.
You definitely see everything coming, but that’s the art of the thing. The story is so plain-faced, in fact, that much of the tension in the film’s first two acts comes from anticipating the big twist that just never arrives.
The result is impressive — “Clovehitch” is completely enjoyable because it sticks to its slow-burn pacing and never succumbs to the temptation to get “exciting,” at least by contemporary standards.
The story centers on Tyler, a teenager growing up in a stridently Christian community somewhere in Kentucky. (We’re guessing near Cincinnati — the feel is far more suburban than small town.) At any rate, the folks in these parts were terrorized by a serial killer 10 years ago, a dark chapter in their superficially idyllic existence they still memorialize but never really talk about.
In fact, they never talk about anything real. Director Duncan Skiles meticulously details the sexual repression, underlying hypocrisy and just plain banality of Tyler’s grace-saying family and classmates.
Tyler’s Scoutmaster dad — a pressure-cooker of pent-up mess played deftly by Dylan McDermott — repeatedly refers to sexual urges as “monkey stuff.” Any attempts to peel back the community’s chaste veneer is met with hysterical, sometimes homophobic, outrage. Tyler’s mom calls clipping newspaper coupons her “hobby.”
The off-chance discovery of some bondage porn in his dad’s truck results in Tyler being ostracized by his classmates, driving him down a dangerous rabbit-hole of discovery about his own family and the sexual predator, who (surprise!) is still out there. Along the way, he’s befriended by edgy outsider Kassi (an outstanding performance from Madisen Beaty), who’s obsessed with the unsolved killings and has her own dark secret.
Any more details about the plot fall into spoiler territory, although the filmmakers never really try to mask what’s actually going on.
An uncomfortable father-son wrestling match within the first five minutes pretty much lays it all out. Any red herrings about the killer’s identity are so paper-thin that they serve only to illustrate Tyler’s conditioned unwillingness to accept the obvious, and are resolved in the next five minutes or so of screen time. And Kassi’s dark secret is exactly what you’d expect it to be.
And yet, it all works, thanks largely to Skiles’ deliberate pacing and Luke McCoubrey’s excellent cinematography. Skiles does resort to a Tarantino-esque time-shift to mix things up a bit in the third act, but the film never switches to high gear, as modern convention dictates.
It’s a tight balancing act, but “Clovehitch” pulls it off a well as any film since last year’s excellent “My Friend Dahmer.” And that flick had the advantage of spending most of its time with the nut-job killer.
Here, we are along for the ride with the nondescript Tyler, played with a decided lack of flair by Charlie Plummer. Tyler’s absence of a distinct identity is yet another comment on social conformity, but it does yield the least-good performance from an outstanding cast.
Certainly, Beaty outshines Plummer when they are together on-screen, and that’s intended. The film’s most emotionally engaging performance comes from Samantha Mathis as Tyler’s oblivious and long-suffering mother.
“Clovehitch” does have it faults, and they lie mainly in the plot itself, which winds up with some massive plot holes. Kassi’s agency as a character is ultimately sublimated to Tyler’s story, despite all her snappy dialogue. And there’s this persistently weird visual of actors who are clearly in their mid-20s riding bikes to get around town, even when they are in a life-or-death hurry.
All in all, the whole of “Clovehitch” winds up being a little less than the sum of its parts. But the parts are awfully good.
“The Clovehitch Killer” starts Friday, Nov. 16, and runs throughout the weekend at Village 8 Theatres.