It’s no novel thought to say that America is obsessed with its serial killers. Though common long before, the last 20 years have especially been fruitful in terms of film serial killers, ranging from gothic horror like Silence of the Lambs, satire like American Psycho, to everything and anything, really. All God’s Creatures, directed by Ryan Charles and Frank Licata, is definitely in this camp. A satisfying but problematic film, it offers something unique to the genre (with a genre as thoroughly pilfered as this one, I can’t say “new”) but simultaneously settles for much that is typical.
Jon Smith (get it?) works by day as a barista in one of New York City’s many, many coffee shops, but spends his Friday nights brutally killing prostitutes. My initial perception of this film was as a boring, serious version of American Psycho, given the lonely, attractive male lead, and the prostitutes. But Josh Folan, also the writer, surprised me with a nuanced, intelligent performance, imbuing the character with a certain mystery and depth I was grateful to have. But, as is typical of this genre, the film struggles against numerous impulses, mostly the need to give Jon individual depth and yet, for some reason, still play to the everyman identification they’re trying to achieve from the audience. Given that the film begins with the second most brutal killing onscreen, the latter goal is abruptly lost, and only regained over time as Jon begins to feel more like an individual and less like a cipher. Making a character bland to achieve identification is an amateur mistake, though I’m glad to say the filmmakers are largely able to avoid such mistakes.
Jessica Kaye plays Delia, the film’s other lead. Kaye delivers a sharp performance, giving the damaged girl enough shades to make us believe she’s hiding, and to let us know just enough of what’s underneath. Unfortunately, the character doesn’t always live up to the performance being offered. My main problem here is a very common one in this particular genre and in the larger perception of “mature” cinema, which is to make it as needlessly dark and hopeless as possible. Not only does Delia enter the film leaving her sister behind in a sexually abusive situation (one of the very interesting facets of her character, actually), she immediately becomes a prostitute…because. It’s a needless tie in to Jon’s pattern of killing, which is dropped as quickly as it’s brought up. The prostitution angle is there to degrade the character, or present the world as actively doing so. Fine, that’s absolutely what you need here. But the prostitution is unnecessary and ultimately doesn’t really achieve that goal. Far better to put her in a normal job, and watch her, as a damaged, angry person, struggle against that, be degraded, in a much subtler way, by that. Much of Delia’s struggle is that she can’t fit in the normal world, but we never actually see her in that world so we never get to verify whether or not that’s true. Where she comes from, the abuse she’s faced in her home, the contrast of her against the rest of the perceived world, is far more interesting than prostitution.
All God’s Creatures is an independent film, down to its bones, and it shows. Mostly that shows in good ways – a willingness to try interesting things, an honesty, a rawness that is absolutely right for this film. In other ways, it comes as a detriment. The first and most annoying way it showed was the constant intrusion of pop song montages, as characters go about their day to day, doing nothing. At a lean 84 minutes, it brings up serious questions when the filmmakers feel the need to fatten out the running time with at least six separate montage sequences, almost all 3-5 minutes long. It also gets very tiring, very quickly. If it’s interesting enough to be on screen, put it on screen as it is; if it’s not, don’t bore us with montages of uninteresting things. The pacing lags, it feels forced, and I already filled my quota of hipster music for the day. It’s doubly unfortunate because the film, when not distracted by music videos, is very well edited, and has an excellent score and sound design, putting the audience on edge, where they should always be in a film like this.
The second independent mistake is the dreaded and all-too-common voiceover. It’s something that very rarely works, and shows up constantly in non-Hollywood fare. I’m a little torn here because the writing was uniformly quite good, and I enjoyed the voiceovers on that level, particularly the very creepy mantra Jon repeats to himself as he moves about the city – “Mitchum. Kennedy. Bundy.” referencing Night of the Hunter, the Zapruder film, and, of course, Ted Bundy. But these details would have been much better delivered to us through conversation, particularly as Delia and Jon strike up a romance throughout the film. We don’t get enough scenes of them talking like normal people, learning things about each other like favorite movies, fascination with serial killers, etc. These are things that should be used to develop their relationship dynamic and make it feel real, instead of information imparted to us, however well-written, through voiceover. It’s much more useful to keep Jon as something of a mystery if not the entire film, then most of it.
But, despite my complaints, there’s a lot to like here. The plotting of the film is quite interesting, following the story beats of a romantic comedy while being about a serial killer and a sexually abused prostitute, which creates a powerful dynamic in the relationship and adds substantially towards making the conclusion as satisfying as it is. The film is also quite well-shot, especially for a lowly independent film, though it lacks the gloss typically associated with more expensive productions. However, the filmmakers have used this to their advantage, focusing on the hardening effect it creates on screen, the harsh contrasts and mundane feel. The editing is perhaps the best aspect of the film, and, when used properly, is an excellent tool for keeping the audience off-balance and placing us in the worldview of the characters. It’s daring without being showy, interesting while still understandable. Put briefly, it works as a window into the minds of some very fucked up people.
All God’s Creatures is an incredibly well-acted film, which helps carry it through some of its missteps. Of particular note is Adam Barnett’s performance as Sean, the step father who sexually abuses Delia and her sister. You know who he is without feeling like he’s a plot device, nor a typical rendition of the sexual predator. He is consistently human, even funny, and knocks it out of the park in a low-key, simple but powerful scene involving a conversation between him and a coworker, played by Carson Grant. That particular scene shows the best of what the crew who made this film have to offer, and it’s damn good, a small, simple scene of just people talking and hitting on things that are much bigger than they realize, and relate strongly to the larger film. Adam Barnett created sympathy for a truly despicable character in one short scene, with no tears, and that’s truly remarkable.
Unfortunately, I can’t talk about the ending of this film out of respect for the spoiler fears of prospective watchers. Though it contains some serious missteps, it works, and I felt quite satisfied. It wraps up the characters and sends them on their way with just the right tone, thankfully returning to the thematic and character elements that make it work. It’s probably the most interesting aspect of the film and introduces a new idea I found quite compelling. Though I’m not a proponent of the thought that the ending makes all the difference, it helps to finish strong, and this film is a good example of that. At the very least to support some quite talented filmmakers with a lot of potential, but also to see an interesting, though not perfect, film, if you get a chance to see it, do so.