The Clovehitch Killer': Father-Son Relations Take a Sinister Shape When Serial Killing's Involved

The serial killings memorialized in the opening scenes of The Clovehitch Killer are the coldest of cold cases. No one has been killed for years. No one is investigating. The Clovehitch Killer is no longer a person, but a long-past natural disaster, whose victims are memorialized but beyond considerations of justice. Though The Clovehitch Killer is about Tyler's suspicions that his dad, Don, may be the long-dormant serial killer, it's not a detective story or a race against the clock. Instead, it's about looking unflinchingly at something you desperately don't want to see.

"The interesting thing is asking, 'What would I do in this situation? So, you think your dad is a serial killer, now what?'" The Clovehitch Killer director Duncan Skiles told Newsweek. "You're stuck in a house with him. You might be wrong. You know it's probably true, but you want really, really badly for it not to be true. That tension is what I wanted to drive the movie."

If Don is the Clovehitch Killer, he's not like other cinematic serial killers. He's doesn't have the supernatural ability to predict every move the police are about to make, like John Doe, or the looming presence of Hannibal Lecter. He's not the self-created god of an underworld domain, like Jigsaw or Carl Rudolph Stargher. It's not his gaze that steers the camera, like Buffalo Bill in his night vision goggles. Instead, it's Don under our scrutiny, pinned down in his home, where he's not defined by the murders that set him apart from society, but by the family life and community duties that makes him one of us. It's a sitcom life, where Don defines himself most by his son, Tyler, played by Charlie Plummer (Lean on Pete).

"When Dylan's character attempts to explain what sex is ... it's a very different conversation than the one I had with my parents," Plummer told Newsweek, alluding to a scene where Don corners Tyler for a sex chat, inadvertently admitting in the process just how much his own conception of sex is tied up with violent thoughts. For Don, sex is in opposition to the values he professes in church and as a Scoutmaster, which places all of sexuality in the same taboo category as his impulses to lash out and hurt others. The only way to be healthy, from Don's perspective, is to repress.

Don (Dylan McDermott) giving his son "The Talk." IFC Midnight

"There's a lot of ways someone can grow up, but one way is discovering your parents are not all they say they are," Plummer said. "Sometimes that means they're not telling the truth about Santa Claus and sometimes it means this."

Exploring a hidden space beneath the floorboards of his father's toolshed, Tyler finds fetish magazines and a piece of drawing paper that unfolds into a fantastical diagram of an underground torture dungeon with a gas chamber (complete with peephole), jumper cables, a wall of neatly organized "devices of pain" and something like a lazy susan for multiple victims, helpfully labeled the "wheel of pain." Tellingly, this monstrous blueprint isn't on graph paper. Instead, it looks like something a band of middle-schoolers might draw up for Halloween. Rather than a grand design, it is a grand delusion.

Tyler (Charlie Plummer) goes searching where he knows he's not allowed. IFC Midnights

"I see him as kind of a pathetic character, in a way," director Skiles said of Don, the family patriarch and maybe, maybe not serial killer of The Clovehitch Killer.

Played by Dylan McDermott, creating Don required shaving McDermott's harline to a slight widow peak and molding his facial hair into a gym teacher's goatee. He also wore a substantial (prosthetic) paunch, the belly of a father whose main contribution to the family diet is making pancakes. He looks like the kind of guy who would keep a multitool, or even his flip phone, on a belt holster. Don is, more than a suspected multiple murderer, a family man in the 1950s mold.

Father-son relationships are tricky enough without the possibility that your dad is "The Clovehitch Killer." IFC Midnight

Skiles didn't originally see McDermott as right for the role and it's easy to see why—photos of the actor, best known for The Practice and American Horror Story, show a man who looks like he was born to black leather and bespoke suits. But McDermott, who says "I've always thought of myself as a character actor," already had Don fixed in his head. He made an audition tape in some glasses and a little moustache. But it must have been his voice, most of all, that made it so obvious that McDermott, more than anyone else, could play the dormant Clovehitch Killer, who once terrorized Tyler's small town.

"I have a little toolbox of characters and I've always wanted to do this particular voice, sort of a Chicago accent," McDermott told Newsweek. "There was something non-threatening about that which I thought was really good for him."

The affect is perfect. Don's gravelly sincerity, where jokes can only be made and understood on his terms, is so perfectly Midwest Christian Scoutmaster I could taste the hobo packets and Dinty Moore again. He slathers over an essentially dictatorial personality with an avuncular smarm that hides, both from the public and his family (most of the time), just how obviously his relations only function with him in complete control.

"It really was quite haunting this role. The duality of who Don is was a lot to take in, day in and day out," McDermott said. "If you're a good actor of course it's going to affect you psychologically. It can't not. You can't help but have it penetrate. It's just so fucked up."

You can see it in the family game night.

"He always has to win, Don, he's one of those guys. Don always has to come out on top," McDermott said. "Like that scene where he's got his son in a headlock. There's always a one-up that Don is operating on. He does it with his brother, he does it with his wife, he does it with Tyler. He's one of those guys who has to dominate, which goes to the Nth degree if he's tying people up and breaking into homes."

While the overwhelming focus of The Clovehitch Killer is on the relationship between Tyler and his father, we also get a sense of just how much Don's values are aligned with his community. "This is a guy who's really sheltered. His two communities, the one at his home and the one at church, both of those don't even talk about things like this," Plummer said. Tyler's judgmental friends, eager to label people sluts or pervs, are joined by church and Scout leaders so determined to repress any animal impulse that they've made themselves incapable of spotting the dysfunction in its most virulent form.

While Don seems partially based in real serial killers (particularly Dennis Rader), Skiles was reluctant to talk about exactly how The Clovehitch Killer reflects the real world. "It sounds a little pretentious," he said apologetically, describing how he'd prefer not giving them the attention they crave. But this deemphasis on the killer also perfectly captures the power of The Clovehitch Killer, in which Don himself is less important than how his dysfunctions reverberate outward, warping the people around him.

The Clovehitch Killer is out now in theaters and streaming VOD.

The Clovehitch Killer': Father-Son Relations Take a Sinister Shape When Serial Killing's Involved | Culture