When approaching a film like this, one can often think “Great, another low budget indie horror movie” Everyone has seen them. The poor acting, the hacky jump scares, the awkward edits. Fortunately for American Killing (formerly known as Wichita), it makes just the right changes to the all-familiar suspense format. The film is about a children’s television show runner struggling to keep his show afloat in the face of cancelation.
The show’s popularity has began to fade so the network producers send Jeb (our soon to be antagonist) and his team of writers to a cabin in the woods on a “writers retreat” to try to revive the series. Then, as all things do in suspense films, things start to fall apart as Jeb begins to develop a secondary idea of filming a hidden camera documentary about his crew. Murders and mayhem follow.
With a fairly simple storyline American Killing manages to subvert expectation at every turn, taking every horror movie trope and steering it in a new, thought-provoking direction. Right off the bat you’ll notice that this isn’t a group a rowdy sex hungry teens on a summer trip. This is, instead, a group of adults that vary in age, issue and, yes, professionalism (what’s a horror film without a few secret hook-ups?) What’s most interesting about this film is how it portrays the breakdown of the human psyche.
Jeb (portrayed by the perfectly creepy Trevor Peterson) is not an out and out weirdo. He teeters the line between guy trying to make his way and guy being a creep. There are times when it’s hard to even tell if he’s wrong in certain situations. How often in horror movies is the antagonist a masked figure or a mysterious stranger? In this film Jeb is just a guy, one of the crew, a murderer in a sweater vest. There is nothing supernatural about him and that’s what makes him effective. Everyone has his or her limits; he could be anyone you know.
Another storytelling device the film uses very well is its use of exposition. Half way through the movie it was bothersome that, as a viewer, you knew Jeb was crazy but didn’t know why? He was seemingly crazy just because. The film took it’s time to reveal his past history which tells you everything you wanted to know, and this worked greatly in its favor, letting the story simmer. Similarly there is a moment in the film where a seemingly “throw away” character is murdered and you may find yourself thinking, “who cares about this guy?” This scene is almost immediately followed up by the line “nobody cares if you die” almost giving the viewer the reassurance that the film knows where it’s going and that you just need to trust it. The films strongest suit is its use of suspense. Not heavy-handed suspense, but rather, suspense you hardly recognize is happening which is arguably the best kind. From the fantastic performances to the unique camera work, it’s all perfectly crafted to keep you invested in the story and not just the payoff.
There are some definite nods to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, but none more obvious than the scoring. Music is used sparingly in American Killing but when it is present, it’s a collection of Hitchcock-ian strings and subtle violin strokes which almost lead you through every moment they’re used, pushing you (and seemingly Jeb) closer and closer to the inevitable break.
In the ultimate use of subversion, the murders wind up being the least important part of the film. By the time you actually get around to them, you’re so invested in the characters that you could make a case for each of them to be the “final girl” (or guy even, in this case) It keeps you guessing right up until the very end how the killings are going to go down, and once they start, they don’t stop.
This again subverts that trope of “one of our friends died, let’s continue our trip” that is so often unbelievable in thrillers. The deaths aren’t over the top, they’re not drawn out, they’re just a means to an end. Is American Killing a perfect film? Of course not. However, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the turns it took. The whole film was subtle, from top to bottom. No major twists, no gory surprises, no sudden jump scares, just a man going through a psychotic break. A character in the film sums it up perfectly when she says, “We’re fascinated by the bad guy.” It’s so objectively true, and in American Killing, for the first time in a long time, we learn just as much about the killer as we do the killed.