Film Review – To Catch a Killer
To Catch a Killer
Have you ever listened to a band perform a cover to a song, and while they get all the notes right the feeling isn’t there? That’s the effect we get from the crime thriller To Catch a Killer (2023). It follows the familiar blueprint almost beat for beat: A young, ambitious officer teams up with an experienced veteran to track down an elusive criminal. Clues are compiled, witnesses are interviewed, etc. – these are all common tropes of the genre. The film follows these points with efficiency, but doesn’t do enough compared to other, better versions of the same story. There’s nothing here that we haven’t seen executed with more creativity and style in other productions. What we get is a cover performance that knows the lyrics but lacks the soul.
Which is too bad, given it’s terrifying opening sequence. It’s New Year’s Eve in Baltimore, with people celebrating on rooftop bars and nightclubs. However, this is also the moment our killer has decided to act. Director Damián Szifron (with cinematographer Javier Julia) conceive the sequence in wide angle shots, getting full view of the celebrants as well as the city skyline in the background. Just as the roar of fireworks are heard, gunshots ring out in the distance. Initially, we aren’t sure if it’s one or the other, until someone falls over dead. The result is confusion and chaos – we aren’t sure where the shots are coming from, or who the shooter is targeting. The resulting commotion and hysteria feel tangible. In terms of creating a sense of randomized danger, the production sets the stage effectively.
The investigation and hunt for the responsible party is what drives the narrative. And it’s here where things start to slip. The writing (Szifron, Jonathan Wakeham) takes the momentum of the opening act and sucks it dry, introducing a procedural plotline that never really takes off. We meet beat cop Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley), whose ability to get into the mindset of the perpetrator impresses FBI investigator Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn). Instead of relying on experienced agents who have spent years working and studying similar cases, Lammark decides to recruit Falco onto his team. He assigns her as his right hand – the person he confides to and relies upon the most. That’s a lot of trust to put on a newbie. Maybe that says more about Lammark’s capability as a detective. He either has the most accurate gut feeling ever, or he has a few screws loose upstairs.
If there is one thing Szifron and his team get right, it’s the daily grind authorities go through to apprehend a criminal. For a killer that is smart, tactical, and leaves no evidence, finding them is like searching for a needle in a haystack. That idea is replicated onscreen when the FBI must comb an entire landfill to find a single piece of evidence. The camera pulls way back to take in the sheer enormity of the task. In the world of movies, audiences enjoy mysteries that include snappy dialogue, exciting chase scenes, and shocking revelations. In real life, I’d imagine that cases are mostly monotonous: filling out paperwork, going over hours of video recordings, checking bank statements, and so on. Late nights are punctuated with coffee breaks, and interrogations take place in backyards with the family dog incessantly barking. In this way, Falco and Lammark’s case feels truthful.
As characters, however, Falco and Lammark are not very compelling. We learn that Falco has had a history of anger and disregard for authority. Lammark notes that her profile fits the kind of people they arrest. To manage her personal issues (I think), we get several scenes of Falco swimming alone at a local pool. To really hammer down the notion that her world is off kilter, the camera will routinely film her inverted, so that the surface of the water is at the bottom of the frame. Falco’s life is metaphorically (and visually) turned upside down.
As for Lammark, his personality is a bundle of conflicting tones. We meet him in the middle of a police station giving a speech to everyone in the room, immediately drawing himself in the power position. But as things progress, his confidence starts to crumble. He may reprimand Eleanor (a person he hired) but will shrink when facing his own superiors. Lammark and Eleanor spend a lot of time trying to understand the motives of the killer as opposed to using that information for actual investigative work. I suppose the two differing sides to Lammark’s psyche is meant to give him dimension and texture, but instead he is more inconsistent than interesting. His character goes in circles and never really gets anywhere. We sense the narrative knows this with the way it handles his journey from start to end.
All the great crime mysteries – from Zodiac (2007), Se7en (1995), Prisoners (2013), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and beyond – have had distinctive identities. They all had something unique that separated them from the pack. That is the one glaring weakness of To Catch a Killer. Although it isn’t terrible, it doesn’t leave much of an impression either. It hints at something substantial but ends up being nothing more than empty calories.