To Catch a Killer
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Ralph Ineson, Jovan Adepo
A generic poster, a rudimentary trailer, and a bland title suggest this latest crime thriller is a new version of something we have seen before. If you caught director Damián Szifron’s explosive film “Wild Tales,” you have an idea of his creative eccentricities. He applies those instincts here, turning left while most investigative cop thrillers turn right. “To Catch a Killer” is a melting pot of the best ingredients from the genre. The script, which Szifron co-wrote, is taught, even in discussion scenes. He balances character development, including the psychology of the killer and protagonist, and the politics and territorial behavior of high-profile murders. The trailer shows the bare bones of what’s inside this film, keeping you on the edge of your seat from the get-go.
On New Year’s Eve, fireworks go off all over Baltimore, and so do 29 guns with 29 bullets for 29 victims. The city quickly becomes a massive crime scene, with multiple task forces trying to find clues. “Most serial killers want to get caught,” Special Agent in Charge Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) explains in his briefing. “Yet, in this case, not a single fiber or fingerprint.” Lammark assigns promising beat cop Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley)as a liaison between the police and the FBI. Her dark past and failed FBI application suggest she might be able to identify with the darkness they suspect is behind the killings.
Fancy camerawork as the film opens alerts viewers that this isn’t just another cheap crime flick.
Szifron and co-writer Jonathan Wakeham design the case and piece it together on screen in a way that might remind some of the “True Detective” series, primarily as it focuses on two investigators with different experience levels and methods. There is also some “Mare of Easttown” in there, how her past inhibits Falco. The studio is selling “To Catch a Killer” as a “Clarice Starling” type story. Still, you only see those threads in the push-and-pull relationship between the overbearing veteran and how he treats the new recruit, i.e., Scott Glenn and Jodie Foster. Szifron is clearly a fan of Michael Mann or Christopher Nolan’s work on shooting around cityscapes. Fancy camerawork as the film opens alerts viewers that this isn’t just another cheap crime flick. What really impresses me is the noticeable detour from archetypal plots and villains.
Ben Mendelsohn (“Cyrano,” “Captain Marvel”) is a brilliantly brooding and menacing character actor. While his entire filmography reads like a best of baddies, there is a reason he’s so good at portraying these demeaning figures. Here, his sexist, critical, and overbearing tone add to the film’s disquieting effect for two hours. Equally typecast, but for different reasons, is Shailene Woodley, who can play the brutally tortured victim like no other in her age range. Her exquisite work in “Big Little Lies” and the film “Adrift” showcase why she was the ideal choice for this role. If the film has a flaw, it’s a provoking underlying message. Maybe it doesn’t need one. As a genre film, it’s captivating and proves there is still life left for murder mysteries of this type on the big screen, not just in a limited series format.
As good as any limited series crime thriller, it begins with a bang pulling the viewer to the edge of their seat and keeping them there the entire time.