Who’s Watching Oliver makes a strong, emotional impression with a very unconventional take on the serial killer narrative.
“That’s what happens when you’re a kid. You have to do things that you do want to do.”
So many serial killer films are totally satisfied to just be ultra-violent, super offensive, or simply make a name for themselves by going as far as they possibly can. At a point, though, all of that gore brings diminishing returns. You see enough slasher killings from horror films and you’ve more or less seen them all. That’s not to say that there still isn’t weight in a good old fashioned serial killer story or an unexpected, raw stabbing, but these days horror audiences are sophisticated and experienced enough that they’re going to need more. That’s why it’s important to point out that Who’s Watching Oliver has plenty of gore, but the film isn’t interested in violence or horror, but rather it’s more a story about survivors of abuse and finding love in a world that’s so deeply flawed. That’s a very unique perspective for a horror film to take, but it’s one that works and it’s why Who’s Watching Oliver is such an unusual, unforgettable debut film.
Right from the film’s first frames, it does an exceptional, economical job to establish Oliver’s (Russell Geoffrey Banks) comprehensive idiosyncrasies and the odd, careful life that he lives. Newcomer director, Richie Moore, makes some unique, inspired decisions to help give this film its unusual voice. Moore blares an unpredictable jazz soundtrack through most of the film and shoots the bulk of the picture with a mentality that operates like this isn’t a horror film, but rather some quirky coming of age feature. This approach is why the film works so well. Just like how Oliver doesn’t know what he really is, neither does the film.
Similarly, Who’s Watching Oliver isn’t interested in making this dissection easy nor does it wish to spoon feed its audience answers. Often the audience has no idea what Oliver is up to, where he is, or what he’s about to do. However, this tension and unsure nature as Oliver’s out in the public works quite well. It’s clear that something is about to go wrong and that anticipation builds to a powerful buzz. You’re often just left to watch Oliver in silence while your brain starts to jump to conclusions.
The film almost exclusively operates from Oliver’s perspective and he often ping-pongs between extremes, which makes the film a continually anxious experience. More and more off elements start to stack up—like the many broken mirrors in his home—and Oliver’s attempts to pick up women and feed his desires become increasingly uncomfortable. Oliver’s actions in the film’s final act where he truly goes off the rails highlight a revelatory performance and Russell Geoffrey Banks (who also co-wrote the film) rises to the occasion of this tricky, layered role.
Who’s Watching Oliver presents a rather boiled down story, but this is a film that really just wants to let its audience watch a serial killer live his life and try to survive in his own skin. That may not be clear at first, but it begins to be rather quickly. This all results in a character study that doesn’t feel unlike Behind the Mask: The Story of Leslie Vernon or Patrick Bryce’s Creep. All of these films explore loneliness in different ways, yet Who’s Watching Oliver is interested in tapping into a different aspect of its psychopath. The first murder that we see Oliver commit is so raw, unexpected, and brutal. It totally pushes the film down a new, dangerous direction. Not only that, but it’s about a third through the film that this first murder occurs, which helps illustrate the film’s methodical pace. The fact that Oliver’s mother “watches” his crimes is also next-level twisted.
The most disturbing part of all of this is that this sort of story is unfortunately far too easy to believe. There are scenes where Oliver rehearses in the mirror on how to smile and ask simple questions to another person. He studies his reactions and tries to look natural. All of this is straight from out of the sociopath serial killer handbook. This makes Oliver even more frightening because it makes him feel real. Furthermore, the film never goes overboard in regard to why Oliver is this way. It’s revealed that his mother has built him to be like this and started these impulses in him, but there are no clunky flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood. We do get a creative take on the flashback with Oliver’s storybook picture show version of his terrible upbringing. It provides just enough details without having to fill in the rest and while it may feel a little awkward, it still works much better than an actual flashback or through dialogue between Oliver and his mother. There’s this overwhelming feeling that Oliver doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but that he merely acts this way to please his mother. The rough edges are present here and that’s all that’s really necessary.
The dynamic between Oliver and his mother (Margaret Roche, who gives such an angry, bitter performance here) is so depressing, yet fascinating. Both of the actors feed well off of each other, but it’s amazing to see how much Oliver’s body language changes whenever he’s talking to his mom. The fact that Oliver’s mother “watches” his crimes is also next-level twisted. It’s brutal to see Oliver want to pull away from his murderous ways and the power that his mother has over him, yet he’s unable to do it. He continues to fall back on what he knows because this is his mother. It’s so sad to watch her slowly dismantle Oliver and pick him apart with each thing she says to him. Oliver wants to improve, but his broken past refuses to let him and that’s perhaps much more devastating than any of the murders in the film.
Oliver’s life gets disrupted when he encounters another lost soul, Sofia (Sara Malakul Lane of It Follows fame). Sofia proceeds to really get under Oliver’s skin and she seems like someone that he could really form a connection with outside of his mother. He definitely becomes obsessed with her and the film tows the line as to whether this is because he wants to shed his ways and be with her or turn her into his next victim. There’s an interesting, albeit fundamentally flawed, relationship there that’s once again different from your typical “romance.” The date that Oliver and Sofia go on is wonderfully awkward, yet you still want to root for Oliver and hope that maybe Sofia can fix him. It’s also just sad that this is maybe the first time that someone else has paid attention to Oliver and been nice to him. It’s unclear how long he’s been killing for, but maybe if he met someone like Sofia earlier in his life he never would have gotten pushed to this dark place.
Who’s Watching Oliver does a lot of things right and its final act is genuinely gutting. It seems like maybe Oliver finds a happy ending and is able to push through his corrupted life, but instead, he’s caught in a cycle that he begins to recognize as normal. He finally accepts his lot and it leaves him in a much sadder, weaker place than when the film begins. But then thankfully it undoes all of this and allows Sofia and Oliver to be happy, together, and finally away from the rule of those that control them. In the end, this does manage to be a surprising ending and warp into an even more perverted love story. Underneath all of the pain and murders is a surprisingly uplifting tale and there’s not enough horror that gives into that sensibility these days.
The themes explored in this film and the toxic dynamics in play between its central characters have certainly been done before, but Who’s Watching Oliver still makes them feel fresh and exciting. This is a tight, efficient story and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, which is certainly possible in a narrative of this nature. The film doesn’t succumb to becoming too indulgent and it knows when to show restraint. This definitely isn’t a film that needs any sort of sequel, but Who’s Watching Oliver leaves me wanting more from Moore and his team and I’m very curious to see what they turn out next.
Who’s Watching Oliver is distributed by Gravitas Ventures and will see release on July 3, 2018, in the US and Canada.