In the age of “elevated horror,” the reigning wisdom seems to be that in order for a film to be frightening in a revelatory, haunt-your-nightmares kind of way, the fear being poked at must be universal on some level. The fear of Hereditary has less to do with its Satanic bent and more to do with a mother who seems subconsciously driven to kill her own children — that if she doesn’t stay vigilant, she might accidentally cover them in gasoline and light the match. The same goes for The Exorcist, which is as much about the stress of single-parenting as it is about demonic possession.
The infanticidal mother is bigger for shock value; it’s a true taboo that common wisdom tells us goes against every law of nature. A murderous, perhaps sexually deviant father, on the other hand, is maybe a more familiar ghost in the popular imagination. In The Clovehitch Killer, a kind of domestic horror story directed by Duncan Skiles and written by Christopher Ford, a kind of boilerplate nightmare-fuel premise — what if my dad is the notorious serial killer who terrorizes my town? — is given pretty effective voice. It is telling how instantly the father character is under suspicion, as if the son barely needed any evidence to start wondering if his father kills women for fun. The same goes for us as the audience, too, but Skiles’s film doesn’t care so much if you think you know how it ends, even if you’re right. It’s all about twisting the knife in the process of confirming those fears.
The film takes place in a small Kentucky town still haunted by a wave of serial murders that took place over a decade earlier. The murderer, referred to as the Clovehitch Killer for the knots he would leave behind as his calling card, was never caught, but his killings stopped abruptly years ago. Charlie Plummer — delicate, perpetually terrified, quickly becoming the second Elle Fanning we didn’t know we needed — plays Tyler, a good boy and dedicated Boy Scout in the troop led by his father, Don (Dylan McDermott, nearly unrecognizable but not so much that it isn’t thoroughly unsettling to see him in this context). Early in the film, Tyler borrows his dad’s truck to take a girl out, and as they tepidly fool around in the cab, she finds a crumpled photo beneath the seat of a woman in a ball gag. She’s horrified, but no more than Tyler is. As she goes around telling their deeply Christian, conservative community what a perverted sinner he is, Tyler begins snooping around his dad’s toolshed, anxious to find out what else his dad has been keeping from him. Ostracized by his friends, he teams up with Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who is obsessed with the Clovehitch case.
The relationship with Kassi is one of the few turns the film takes that feels like a movie-ish fabrication — Beatty is a fine young actress, but the part is written a little too cutely. Everything else feels like a more or less horrifyingly believable depiction of what it would be like to realize your father was a murderer — even down to the willful denial young Tyler wrestles with despite the mountain of evidence confirming his worst fears. The movie takes a pleasantly unpredictable zag halfway through, and our perspective switches to Don’s during a weekend when the rest of the family is out of town, and the banality of his working-class existence is juxtaposed right alongside his repression and rage and compulsive need to play a different role. Don, as an idea of a character, works because of Ford and Skiles’s empathy, if not sympathy for him, and their awareness of the cultural and environmental factors that have shaped him. It’s convincing because it’s not terribly sensationalized, and the film’s conclusion is similarly smart, completely pulling the rug out from under our expectations of justice and revenge. In the end, Don’s family just wants peace, and despite the horrors depicted along the way, the film is humane enough to let them have it.