Jeb’s team of new writers provides the story with a good balance of character types that we’re pretty sure (given the title) won’t all make it to the closing credits. There’s Raven (Persia White) a successful young adult fiction writer who has a touch of the ‘goth’ about her and on whom Jeb has a slightly obsessive crush. There’s Jeb’s old buddy Clark (Demitri Goritsas) who’s a bit of a hack and is dealing with both a drinking problem and marital troubles. In the ‘hunky pin up boy’ category, there’s Billy (Christopher Wolfe) who doesn’t seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer, and there’s Natalie (Caitlin Gerard) the privileged self-centred daughter of a network bigwig. And bringing up the rear is the sweet and motherly Joan (Melinda Lee).
We know from the outset that Jeb is a little unhinged, but the extent of his weirdness quickly escalates as he progressively plants cameras around the house to satisfy his voyeuristic intents and when he gets a call from the producer types that they’re losing confidence in his ability to deliver what they want, Jeb goes off the deep end. And it’s here that, for me, the film starts to go off the rails (or amps up into hysterical mayhem, depending upon your tastes).
Up until the half-way point, Matthew Ward’s screenplay has a taut and compelling tension to it with just the right amount of quirk to make us feel like we’re watching something more than a run-of-the-mill cabin-in-the-woods type of thriller. Peterson is compelling on screen and, in the first two acts, manages to elicit some sympathy to go along with our general abhorrence of his character. Likewise, the rest of the ensemble find genuinely interesting journeys through the screenplay and the direction from Ward and Justyn Ah Chong makes great use of the multi- level house and the multi-cam voyeuristic surveillance to keep us on our toes if not on the edge of our seats. For me, the last really enjoyable moments in this film are those that we get when Jeb goes home to his religiously fanatical mother, a nicely unbalanced performance from Sondra Kerr Blake whose television pedigree goes back to the sixties and the seventies with roles in shows like Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Mission Impossible, The Rockford Files and more. But then the gory violent stuff takes over and we find ourselves in a more meat-and-potatoes killing spree as Jeb decides to make a different movie with a bit more bite than Amy and the Aliens.
What we lose from this point until the end is that cleverer underlying understated threat that sits beneath almost every scene in acts one and two, replaced by more obvious and predictable fare in the third act. We also lose our connection with the great idea that these creative minds are here to crack the nut of the failing ratings for their cartoon series. The opportunity to tie the horror of the story’s end into some unexpected, bizarrely successful outcome for the show is completely missed. Having said all that, the end isn’t actually bad, it’s just not as enjoyable as the set up, so if you can live with the disappointment of its more mundane predictability, then the first half or so of the movie is well worth your time.
It’s interesting to note that American Killing started life with the title Wichita (the reference is unclear to me) for a 2016 release at the Santa Fe Film Festival but is about to resurface with its new name and a new release on DVD.