Synopsis – A modern-day Clarice Starling, Eleanor (Shailene Woodley) is a young police investigator wrestling with the demons of her past when she is recruited by the FBI’s chief investigator (Ben Mendelsohn) to help profile and track the work of a disturbed individual. As the police and FBI launch a nationwide manhunt, they are thwarted at every turn by the individual’s unprecedented behavior. Given her tortured psyche, Eleanor may be the only person who can understand the mind of their assailant and bring him to justice.
My Take – Nowadays, most crime thrillers are often shot with a limited budget and consist of B-level features, an unimportant factors provided the script delivers, which unfortunately, mostly does not.
However, what made this latest addition to the genre a much more elevated experience is the assured hands of Argentinian filmmaker Damián Szifron, who here makes his English-language debut feature and is widely known for Cannes-selected satirical film Wild Tales (2014), which also earned him an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 87th Academy Awards.
Backed by a captivating opening sequence, expert photography, and top notch score that keeps us hooked throughout, the end result is watchable, if not memorable, but something that’s a notch above the boilerplate crime thrillers we have been relegated to off late.
Acting as a throwback to the mystery thrillers we had in the 90s, with obvious influences that run through the entirety of the film, particularly character depictions, this psychological crime procedural no doubt has bumps along the way, especially in regards to its confusion in the best path for the script, however its hypnotic story is met with intriguing suspense and a mesmerizing cast, who refuse to let go of their grip on the audience and commit to telling every avenue its story has to offer.
And while the ending might not land for all, director Szifron and co-writer Jonathan Wakeham manage to satisfy the insatiable itch many of us have for films featuring cops and killers.
Set on New Year’s Eve in Baltimore, the story follows Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley), a young and talented but troubled police officer, who amidst the celebrations, revelry, and parties occurring all over the city, is radioed in when an unseen sniper shoots and kills 29 of its residents, using the exploding fireworks as cover.
Though Eleanor and her fellow beat cops manage to track down the apartment from where the bullets were coming from, they are unable to apprehend the killer as he blows his own lair in order to avoid leaving evidence. However, Eleanor’s efforts are enough to impress the FBI’s chief investigator Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn), who recruits her to help him and his team, which includes Mackenzie (Jovan Adepo), with the manhunt.
But as the serial killer becomes more and more dangerous, the trio struggle to find him. Their efforts are further complicated by the bureaucracy that is determined to keep the public happy. And as their investigation continues, more people’s lives are put at risk, more media outlets are looking to cover the story, more pressure is put on the investigators, and more of Eleanor’s mind is about to break.
Director Damian Szifron kicks the film off with a style and excitement that suggest the crime thriller is in good hands. What threatens to be another routine police procedural is quickly elevated by his keenly observational direction, who wrote the suspenseful screenplay with Jonathan Wakeham. The film wastes no time finding an immediate pace that only occasionally pauses to catch its breath. From the moment it starts, it is as engaging as it is horrific, quickly building the intensity that will inevitably grip the audience.
When the first gunshot is seen, rather than heard as a colorful array of fireworks ignites, the scene is shocking, you as a viewer questioning if you saw the action on screen correctly. Each sequence after follows the same construction, yet with each brutal and precise kill, the reality of the attack and the graphic nature become more and more apparent.
The idea of a killer mindlessly mowing down dozens of innocent citizens is certainly more believable than ever before. It’s one hell of a scene, one of the better crime thriller opening sequences in recent memory.
Set to a pounding score, the crime thriller is atmospheric and wonderful to look at, with a gripping middle act and a nerve-racking third act. Running at 119 minutes, the narrative gradually draws the viewer in before packing a knockout climax. There are several set pieces (a mall encounter, garbage dump search) that are either visually arresting or perfectly paced, and the moments of character building between Eleanor and Geoffrey add to the film’s storytelling depth and are not executed in an obligatory fashion.
While the screenplay cannot compete with or compare to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a film it is obviously inspired by in large part. Yet, what truly stands out is the film’s inclusion of the politics of an investigation. This is not two or three detectives doing all they can to solve crime with flashlights down dark alleyways. Rather, a series of moves that satisfy the insatiable need of those in power to end a crisis against those who are willing to do whatever it takes to find the truth.
Though the story also briefly touches on many political issues in the U.S., including mental health, racism, media, and societal failure of the needy, it doesn’t firmly make a point about anything.
Nevertheless, it’s the performance of the cast that deserves the most praise. Shailene Woodley (who is also a producer) is excellent as a troubled and inexperienced cop and is a natural in roles that position her as an individual in over her head. Her mature parts like this one stand out in comparison with the number of teen-orientated films she’s done in the past. She’s teamed with the equally superb Ben Mendelsohn, and their chemistry will keep your mind alert and your temples pounding.
Mendelsohn is right at home playing an angry federal agent determined on finding the killer above all else. The two headliners anchor the proceedings and are essential to making things gel into a relatively entertaining exercise in genre.
Though Jovan Adepo is served with a cookie cutter character, he manages to salvage himself with a very likable turn. Ralph Ineson too shines in his small role, chewing the scenery with his commanding presence and booming voice. On the whole, ‘To Catch a Killer’ is a gripping throwback thriller backed by solid performances.
Directed – Damián Szifron
Starring – Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Ralph Ineson
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes