To Catch a Killer, the English-language debut of Argentinian writer-director Damian Szifron, is a solid procedural that efficiently and engagingly moves through its relatively predictable plot points. The subject matter of a disturbed mass killer preying on unsuspecting victims with a high-powered rifle, is all-too-familiar in our current state of affairs, even if it is given a somewhat intensified aura that at times borders on the supernatural.
The film opens with a New Year’s Eve-turned-nightmare as the killer starts picking off people in downtown Baltimore from a high-rise apartment building, one floor of which subsequently explodes. Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley), a beat cop who is one of the first responders, is prescient enough to get the other police to start recording video of all the people fleeing the building on the off chance that the killer is one of them, which catches the attention of Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn), the hard-nosed FBI profiler in charge of the investigation. He recruits her to his team, intuitively sensing that she has intuition and acumen beyond her pay grade, which she proves again and again.
And, while the mystery of the killer’s identity and the various routes the investigators must take to follow his path is intriguing and attention-holding, the film works best as a character drama about the relationship between Eleanor and Lammark, both of whom are loners in their own way. Eleanor is arguably the less interesting loner, as she is painted in fairly broad terms (lives alone, dotes on a cat, swims and runs by herself), while Lammark is more intriguing in that his isolation seems to derive primarily from his caustic personality and intensity of purpose, which drives most people away. Yet, there is more to him that the hardened character stereotype would first suggest, and the manner in which he and Eleanor work together and develop a relationship of trust and respective in their pursuit of the killer lends the film an added layer of dramatic and emotional depth.
Less effective is the film’s clear intention to indict just about every aspect of our social and legal systems, from gun culture, to the minimization of mental health care. Nothing really works, which is why Eleanor and Lammark are up against such odds in achieving their goals. They get some assistance from a world-weary detective played by Jovan Adepo, who feeds Eleanor information despite his reservations, suggesting that the system functions primarily when dedicated people work along its margins. The answers that are ultimately offered in To Catch a Killer’s third act, which leaves the city for the country, are arguably slight, and it doesn’t have a great deal of panache, which is surprising given that Szifron first made a name for himself with the Oscar-nominated Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, 2014), a dramatic sestet about people pushed to their limits, which was produced by Spanish provocateur Pedro Almodovar. However, it is engaging enough and contains just enough compelling character moments to distinguish it from so many similar films.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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