THE STORY – A troubled police officer is recruited by the FBI’s chief investigator to help profile and track down a disturbed individual terrorizing Baltimore, Maryland.
THE CAST – Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Ralph Ineson, Jovan Adepo, Michael Cram, Darcey Laurie & Mark Camacho
THE TEAM – Damián Szifron (Director/Writer) & Jonathan Wakeham (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
Damián Szifron’s “To Catch a Killer” has been marketed as a “The Silence of the Lambs“-like story, featuring a Clarice Starling-like character in the form of Shailene Woodley’s Eleanor Falco. Those are indeed considerable shoes to fill, as Jonathan Demme’s horror-thriller is an Oscar-winning masterpiece with characters, scenes, and dialogue that cannot – and probably should not – be imitated. “To Catch a Killer” would have been better off being marketed as its own thing, with unique characters and a relatively engaging story buoyed by a pair of solid performances from Woodley and Ben Mendelsohn. Even though police procedurals are extremely common as TV and limited series, they seem to be less common on the big screen, so it’s good to see another one hitting theatres, even if the marketing has been rather light. Szifron’s previous film was nearly ten years ago: 2014’s “Wild Tales,” which was nominated for an Oscar for International Feature Film.
“To Catch a Killer” begins in Baltimore – although it was filmed in Montreal – on New Year’s Eve and shows people enjoying typical NYE celebrations, such as fireworks, partying, and the like. Pretty soon, though, this exuberance is disrupted by seemingly random gunfire that ends up killing nearly 30 people. The eerie, haunting atmosphere that follows essentially permeates most of the remaining runtime. The police enlist the services of FBI Special Agent Lammark (Mendsolhn), who himself recruits a young, clever police officer named Eleanor Falco (Woodley). The two work together to catch this serial killer, whose killings appear random and unplanned. Falco can understand the killer and his motivations quite well. She may be ambitious and clever but is also inexperienced and – according to a previous test – not necessarily mentally up to the task. In addition, she is extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent, which is mainly why Lammark ends up recruiting her. And yet, she has some mysterious struggles and inner demons, which are barely touched upon.
As it turns out, the serial killer himself is far less interesting than the film’s two protagonists, as he is a typically troubled man who has long felt like an outcast. Szifron and Wakeham’s script is fairly exposition-heavy at times, which is hardly unexpected when it comes to a police procedural, although many other films have done it better. Some plot points seem a bit too far-fetched and even fantastical, but eventually, that goes out the window, and you become invested in the story and the fight to catch the killer. Even though the film is just under two hours, some scenes drag on too long or could have been cut entirely, especially one involving the alt-right and their conspiracy theories. The best sequence is the opening, which features the NYE celebrations interrupted by the shooting.
Perhaps the film also tries to tackle too much, such as gun culture, preconceived notions about serial killers, and the media frenzy surrounding events like mass murders. There’s also some far-from-subtle commentary on the incompetence of certain members of law enforcement, especially as seen from the eyes of others working in the field; Eleanor and Lammark are continually thwarted in their search for the killer by higher-ups who just want to get things done more quickly, even if it leads to more dead bodies. Of course, all of this is very timely, considering the high number of mass shootings we continue to see in the United States. “To Catch a Killer” attempts to deconstruct some of its before-mentioned sensitive issues. Yet, the script isn’t nearly as nuanced or innovative as it wants to be. Also, the few jokes that exist do not land as much as the actors try to deliver in a better way than they are written. The dialogue is hardly witty or clever, yet it is often concise – except in scenes that are too long – and easy enough to follow. Like others in the genre, “To Catch a Killer” features shocking, sometimes gruesome deaths, although it’s probably not nearly as violent as it could have been. And yet, as a film about a serial killer, it’s genuinely terrifying at times, especially when the shootings are depicted; there is also a scene in a slaughterhouse that may be upsetting to some viewers.
Woodley, who was also a producer on the film, is quite good in the role, which is a much more serious one than we are used to seeing her play. In one notably powerful scene, she tearfully tells Mendsolhn’s Lammark about her past issues regarding addiction and self-harm. The character is likable and interesting enough to make for a solid protagonist; even if there’s still much about her we still need to find out. It might be worthwhile to see Woodley’s Eleanor in more films as long as more is shown regarding her backstory. Mendelsohn is one of those reliably great character actors who can elevate any script he’s given, even when the dialogue reaches cliche territory. The Australian actor’s special agent seems, at first, to be simply demanding, yet as Eleanor gets to know him, so do we. Lammark is a quirky character who can’t be adequately described in just a few words, and thanks to his solid chemistry with Woodley, his scenes with her are the best. Oh, and there’s also Jovan Adepo and FBI agent Mackenzie, who assists Eleanor and Lammark with the case; unfortunately, he’s underused here and is sometimes the one given the lines intended to be funny that are, in fact, not funny.
The score was composed by Carter Burwell (Oscar-nominee for “The Banshees of Inisherin“), and features lovely melodies for the more intimate scenes and exactly what you’d expect for the more action-heavy scenes. Szifron’s direction is just fine – nothing special, and also nothing terrible, even if there is that one sequence (mentioned earlier) that should have been trimmed or cut altogether. The occasional use of slo-mo is slightly effective at the moment, though this is clearly a cliched device used in films of this genre to mask deeper issues with the screenplay.
“To Catch a Killer,” despite its mundane and forgettable title (originally titled “Misanthrope”) is actually quite good, if not great. It is a tension-filled drama about a serial killer that is at its best when focused on the two leads. Hopefully, the lack of marketing – mainly focused on the film’s supposed likeness to “The Silence of the Lambs” – doesn’t prevent people from seeing this worthwhile watch.