Dark City: The Cleaner is an audacious, addictive and gleefully self-aware local thriller

Hugely popular crime novels set in Christchurch come to the screen in thriller series Dark City: The Cleaner – streaming on Neon from March 4. It’s a queasy, unnerving watch that hits different, writes Katie Parker.

We first meet Joe Middleton (Cohen Holloway) as he makes his way inside a large, tastefully presented suburban Christchurch home, briefcase in hand, desperate to get into the air conditioning. Finding the shower running, he waits patiently for the occupant, Angela, to finish, taking a moment to chug a beer, cuddle Fluffy the family cat, and have a cursory glance at the latest newspaper’s headline proclamation that a local serial killer—the ‘Christchurch Carver’—is still on the loose, after murdering at least four women in the space of two years.

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For all intents and purposes, Joe seems much like every other bloke—that is, until the door to the bathroom opens and a very surprised woman asks him just who the fuck he is. This is not, it turns out, Joe’s house… and things have just taken a very dark turn for Angela, Fluffy, and the audience.

Based on the novels by award-winning Kiwi author Paul Cleave, Dark City: The Cleaner follows Joe as he leads a masterful double life—obsessing over and brutally murdering women in his spare time, and hiding in plain sight working as a cleaner at the local police station.

Unusual interests aside, Joe insists that he is just as ordinary as he seems: feeding his fish, ignoring calls from his shrill, critical mother, and even rescuing an injured cat off the side of the road.“Everyone is fascinated by me, trying to figure me out—police, media, podcasters, psychics”, he muses. “Truth is, I’m just a regular guy, an average guy, with a hobby.”

Perhaps this is why The Cleaner is quite such a queasy, unnerving watch. Joe is a convincing everyman, and in many ways relatable, so when he admits through his deadpan, matter-of-fact voice over, that “I like women, and I like to do things to them that they won’t let me do”, it hits different—and permeates even the lighter scenes with a dread and darkness unmatched by most local crime shows.

As hard as it can be to stomach though, Joe’s hobby has all been going pretty well for Joe for a while—all but invisible to the police who work alongside him everyday (lead by Robbie Magasiva’s DI Carl Schroder), he is able to gather inside intel from the investigation with ease, safe in the knowledge that no one is anywhere near catching the culprit.

That is until two things happen. First a murder takes place with all the hallmarks of the Christchurch Carver… but Joe had nothing to do with it. And second, he meets Melissa (Chelsie Preston Crayford)—a sweet, if naive, young journalist fresh in from Auckland (or is she?). A chance meet-cute at a local grocery shop one night sees the pair hit it off, and Melissa asks Joe to walk her home from the bus—there being a serial killer on the loose and all.

But, like Joe, Melissa is not quite what she seems. When they take a turn down a dark alley, he realises not only that he has underestimated her, but that she presents a previously unforeseen threat to his lifestyle—and his life in general.

Equal parts gleefully self aware and genuinely chilling, The Cleaner’s pitch black sense of humour underpins an original and compelling mystery thriller, with the balls to take things to a place few others would dare (a moment less than five minutes into the second episode will have some members of the audience closing their eyes and crossing their legs).

Supported by a slew of New Zealand’s best thespians including Elizabeth Hawthorne, Cameron Rhodes, and David de Lautour, Preston Crayford and Holloway each make magnetic, formidable leads—with Holloway deserving props for being such an incredibly good sport about some very gnarly scenes relating to some very sensitive body parts.

Twisty and unpredictable, Dark City: The Cleaner is an unexpectedly audacious and instantly addictive series that perfectly showcases Aotearoa’s talent for taking dark subject matter to delicious new depths.