‘To Catch a Killer’ Review: Shailene Woodley and Ben Mendelsohn Elevate This Otherwise Familiar and Uneven Psychological Thriller

to catch a killer review

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The first thing that caught my attention was the title itself. ‘To Catch a Killer’? Really? Is that the best they can come up with? Maybe they should have stuck to ‘Misanthrope’ rather than this awfully generic title. The movie stars Shailene Woodley as Eleanor Falco, a Baltimore beat cop who we first see her trying to settle a conflict between the disgruntled owner of a diner and a customer who refused to leave.

But the trouble on New Year’s Eve night is nothing compared to what happens next: An unidentified marksman has randomly killed the innocents from a high-rise building just a couple of blocks from where she is right now. Twenty-nine people end up dead, and despite the subsequent presence of the police and FBI arriving at the crime scene, there are no fingerprints or any trace of evidence whatsoever.

Damián Szifron, the Argentinian director behind the BAFTA-winning ‘Wild Tales’ making his English-language debut, gets off to a promising start with an attention-grabbing opening sequence: A fun-filled New Year’s Eve night enlivened by the sparks of fireworks and partygoers having fun drinking and grooving to the beat of the EDM. And earlier in the movie, we even have an inverted establishing shot of the high-rise buildings, suggesting a sense of euphoria, only to be subsequently interrupted by a sudden terror.

A shot is fired, killing one of the innocents across the building, and it doesn’t stop from there. We see more people get shot in the nearby area from the top to the grounds below, where no one survived — all precise and clean shots. Given the timely subject matter of mass shooting sprees, it hits home.

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Following the aftermath of the mass shootings, FBI agent Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) oversees the case, and he’s particularly impressed with Eleanor’s observant way of thinking. He recruits her to join him on a manhunt, which offers her the chance to work with the FBI. The rest of the movie focuses on the intricate side of the police/investigative procedural, covering the profiling to interrogating the possible suspects.

Szifron, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Jonathan Wakeham, does a good job eliciting enough dramatic tension within its procedural subgenre, even if the story feels very familiar. Besides, the premise of two law enforcers joining forces to track down an elusive killer instantly reminds me of a psychological thriller used to dominate Hollywood cinema in the ‘90s and ‘00s era.

The movie also benefits from Shailene Woodley and Ben Mendelsohn’s stellar performances, as their onscreen pairing is one of the reasons that made this otherwise all-too-familiar psychological thriller watchable. Individually speaking, Woodley showcased her dramatic acting prowess as the dedicated but vulnerable Eleanor Falco while Mendelsohn delivers a typically engaging turn as the cynical and persistent FBI agent-in-charge.

On the technical side, Szifron deserves mention for some of his dynamic cameraworks, and so does Javier Julia’s impressive widescreen cinematography, where the latter captured the chilly and atmospheric Montreal that convincingly served as a stand-in for Baltimore. Then, there’s Carter Burwell, whose frequently moody score fits the movie’s overall tone. The procedural-style narrative approach may have been dense with dialogues but Szifron doesn’t forget to inject some gripping moments, as seen in the opening sequence and others, namely the violent shootout in the convenience store.

As much as I enjoy the most parts of the movie, ‘To Catch a Killer’ could have achieved a level of greatness if not for its increasingly tedious storytelling. This is especially true with the somewhat anticlimactic ending after all the deliberate build-up. If that’s not enough, this is the kind of movie that features the antagonist and bores us with an expository-filled monologue, making the nearly two-hour length feels like it’s overstretched just to fulfill the standard runtime quota.

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The movie even attempts to delve deeper into the character arcs of the two main protagonists. For instance, we learn that behind Woodley’s Eleanor’s sheer dedication to working from a beat cop to joining the FBI, she’s a troubled individual with suicidal tendencies and drugs problem in the past. But all these are just glossed over in a perfunctory manner, even though Woodley does her best to overcome her surface-level characterization with an above-average acting performance.

One scene caught me off guard, and I don’t mean the surprise or shocking elements of the procedural details or the killer’s motivation. It was rather the scene transition revolving around the fate of Mendelsohn’s Lammark that I’m not sure whether it was meant as a joke. But it looks to me the scene turns out to be jarring and awkwardly misplaced.

Still, some of the shortcomings aside, ‘To Catch a Killer’ remains an engrossing watch, thanks to the captivating screen presences of Shailene Woodley and Ben Mendelsohn.

SCORE: 6/10

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