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Film Review: ‘To Catch a Killer’ is a Consistently Compelling Serial Killer Procedural

Vertical Entertainment
Vertical Entertainment

We don’t get a ton of police or serial killer procedurals on the big screen anymore. On television? These sorts of shows fill the landscape. That’s all well and good, but there’s something that I find more satisfying about a cinematic interpretation. At its best, it can give us The Silence of the Lambs or Zodiac. Now, To Catch a Killer is nowhere near that stratosphere, but it does manage to be a consistently compelling throwback. They don’t make em like this anymore, and moreover, they just don’t make these anymore. So, that helps to give it an extra leg up.

To Catch a Killer doesn’t try to do too much, which is a smart decision. While it certainly hopes you’re thinking of Clarice Starling while watching, it more accurately is showcasing an elevated version of what we see on TV. It may sound like damning with feint praise, but it’s more a testament to doing something well. It’s not a groundbreaking picture, but it’s an effective one that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. For two hours, you’re compelled to find out what happens next.

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On New Year’s Eve in Baltimore, shots ring out. Some troubled individual has gone on a rampage, with numerous bodies left in their wake. Among the police officers answering the call is Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley). Showing bravery as well as a unique crime scene mind, she’s noticed by the FBI’s chief investigator on the ground, Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn). He wants her help to profile and track down this disturbed individual. Falco has a troubled history and her background, combined with her inexperience, makes the choice controversial within the ranks, but Lammark sees something in her.

As their investigation progresses, so do more mass shootings. The pair, along with another FBI agent in Mackenzie (Jovan Adepo), are not just racing against time. They’re also dealing with politics and pushback from all sides, as the powers that be just want a quick fix. Lammark thinks they’re getting close and just needs more time. Falco just needs to fight her own demons, because if she can, she may just be able to save the day. Her tortured existence actually puts her in a position to understand a killer who’s thwarting so many at every turn by unprecedented behavior.

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Shailene Woodley gets an intense role to play here, and while she’s not as showy as Ben Mendelsohn, they both turn in very good work. Woodley is no-nonsense and troubled, but also clever and smart, making for one of her most mature roles to date. She’s not as charming and witty as she tends to be in her best roles, but this is a strong new side for her. As for Mendelsohn, his character has all of the film’s quirk, but also is a welcome spin on an otherwise stock part. At the same time, he elevates the role from the screenplay, to the movie’s benefit. Jovan Adepo gets a bit of the short end of the stick, but he manages to give his role part more personality than likely was on the page. Supporting players include Ralph Ineson, among others, but you’re here to watch Mendelsohn and Woodley.

Filmmaker Damián Szifron made a name for himself with Wild Tales several years ago, so this follow-up has been rather anticipated in some circles. While it’s not as creatively juicy or awards-friendly, it’s clear that Szifron is a skilled storyteller. The script he co-wrote with Jonathan Wakeham doesn’t try to do too much, and while a little more characterization for their main players would have been nice, they don’t take things in any sort of misguided direction. As for his direction, it’s got some style to it, but mostly just flows, with a solid score from Carter Burwell. What you’re seeing is simply a good movie, as opposed to potentially a great one, given the director. Still, the good very much outweighs the bad here.

To Catch a Killer won’t make you forget about the classic procedurals, but it does scratch that sort of cinematic itch. With strong work from Mendelsohn and Woodley, in addition to a unique take on the killer on the loose story, it manages to craft a compelling tale. Here’s hoping that Szifron doesn’t have too long a wait before his next flick, since this is still evidence that he’s an artist with plenty of talent.

SCORE: ★★★


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Written by Joey Magidson

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