"To Catch a Killer" Review
It’s New Year’s Eve in Baltimore, and the parties are raging late into the night. The champagne is flowing and the fireworks are blasting, both of which provide excellent cover for a sniper to exact his bloodlust. 29 bullets leave his rifle, hitting 29 targets, all seemingly chosen at random. One of the first responders is Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley), a low-level street cop who impresses the lead FBI Investigator (Ben Mendelsohn) with her intuition and critical thinking. This killer is not part of a terrorist cell or trying to send a message. He’s a lone wolf that “is just swatting flies” for momentary relief. Nobody knows when he’ll strike next, which frustrates politicians and the public, as the feeling of safety is quickly fleeting.
Argentine writer/director/editor Damián Szifron landed on the international scene with a bang in 2014 with Wild Tales, which went on to be Oscar-nominated for Best International Feature. That satirical story opened a lot of doors for him, but he never seemed able to get through the frame. Projects came and went, including writing a script for a modern adaptation of Six Billion Dollar Man starring Mark Wahlberg. While I’m glad that project never got off the ground, it’s not like To Catch a Killer is all that original either. There are little hints that explain why an original voice like Szifron would want to tell this generic story, but none of them come to the surface in a compelling enough way.
“Misanthrope” was the original title for the film, which tracks much closer to the themes within Szifron’s script, which he co-wrote with Jonathan Wakeham. The radio and television shows are filled with conspiracy theories and hot takes, spreading mass paranoia and fear-mongering. The politicians have their angle for why this killer needs to be caught, as an energy company is now having second thoughts over the safety of their proposed billion-dollar facility.
The only thing that will get the job done is putting your head down and doing the dirty work, which Falco is more than willing to do. Her dark past helps her connect a little better with the killer. Woodley is capable in the role, but it never seems to be more than a lesser version of Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. The script also doesn’t do much to let you follow along with Falco’s investigation. You’re being pulled along instead of following, with a few twists and turns being unsubstantiated and pulled out of thin air.
Nonetheless, Szifron instills gripping procedural energy. The camera maintains a neutral observational presence during the moments before mass carnage, almost as if it's been ripped from a surveillance feed. You know the mundanity is about to be interrupted by bloodshed, with the only left for you to do is wait. Carter Burwell’s score is as methodical as the killer himself, with the piano keys creating a haunted atmosphere.
To Catch a Killer may be a good enough entry in this tried-and-true genre, but it never can reach its loftier ambitions. With this being the comeback vehicle for both Szifron and Woodley after multi-year absences, it’s a little disappointing to see that this was all they could come up with.