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“Your father has his own set of interests.” “The Clovehitch Killer” by Duncan Skiles is a thriller/drama about a teenager who becomes suspicious of a few of his dear old father’s “hobbies.” The title alludes to a serial killer who murdered at least ten women a decade ago but has since vanished. In a small town like the one where Tyler (Charlie Plummer, who was fantastic in “Lean on Pete”) lives with his family, a maniac this violently prolific is not forgotten, and there are still vigils and people in a town obsessed with determining the identity of the madman who may still live in their midst. Tyler’s father, Don (Dylan McDermott), is a churchgoer who appears to be perfectly normal. He’s the kind of awkward father who always refers to his son as “bud,” over-pronounces anything with more than two syllables, and thinks it’s hilarious to move his arms in a circle when giving a “round” of applause (Get it?!?!). Tyler’s world then comes crashing down around him.
Tyler “borrows” his father’s truck one day to sneak out with a girl he likes. She discovers a crumpled-up photo under the seat of a woman in bondage, just as his teenage dreams are about to come true. We know it isn’t Tyler’s, but she refuses to believe him. The truth, however, is far worse than the rumors going around school that Tyler is a “perv”: it most likely belongs to Tyler’s father. Also, you must try to play this The Clovehitch Killer Movie Quiz.
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But it’s only a photograph. It’s not a big deal. Tyler, on the other hand, begins to see his father in a new light. As Tyler befriends a local girl named Kassi (Madisen Beaty), who is the town expert on The Clovehitch Killer, named after the knot he used to tie up his victims, he begins to notice more and more “off” things about his father, including the padlocked shed out back where he spends far too much time. Tyler breaks in one day and discovers a few more bondage photos. So, your father enjoys kinky sex? What difference does it make? But what about the Polaroid of a restrained woman with the name Nora written on it? Is that Nora Devlin, one of the murderer’s victims?
“The Clovehitch Killer’s” first act is effective and engaging as a subgenre entry in the common coming-of-age dynamic of a son discovering his father is more complex than he first thought. Murderously more complex in this case. Do you think Don is a serial killer? Tyler can’t bring himself to believe it, and Skiles entertains our doubts about Tyler’s guilt or innocence for a while. Could Kassi be fueling erroneous suspicions? Plummer deftly sells the internal turmoil that would accompany horrific suspicions against a loved one, and McDermott allows potential darkness to seep through early, making the tension believable.
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Then Skiles and his writer, Christopher Ford, start putting Tyler and Kassi in situations that are simply not plausible. And they begin to stack up, one on top of the other, until the film collapses under their weight. We’re all willing to suspend our disbelief if a thriller works, but everyone checks out when they no longer find what the characters are doing or saying to be genuine. Without giving too much away, Tyler discovers something that appears to be extremely dangerous, and the note I took simply stated, “Cops would be called.” He would never go camping with his father on his own. Plummer does his best to make his character believable, but it’s almost as if scenes about why he’d be so blindly loyal to someone he suspected of being a serial killer are missing.
Then “The Clovehitch Killer” goes completely off the rails. It takes a dramatic POV shift about halfway through, answers any lingering questions, and transforms into a nearly entirely different film. I’m all for thrillers that try to surprise their audiences with twists like this one, but Skiles and Ford fall short. In the end, the POV switch feels more like a cheap trick to get to a shocking moment than something that significantly improves the film. And, as good as Plummer and McDermott are, Ford eventually writes himself into a corner that necessitates actions in the final act that don’t ring true. “The Clovehitch Killer” runs out of excuses, much like a clearly guilty man claiming innocence.