Producers: Aaron Ryder, Stuart Manashil, Damián Szifron and Shailene Woodley Director: Damián Szifron Screenplay: Damián Szifron and Jonathan Wakeham Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Jovan Adepo, Ralph Ineson, Richard Zeman, Dusan Dukic, Jason Cavalier, Nick Walker, Darcy Laurie, Mark Camacho and Frank Schorpion Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Argentine writer-director Damián Szifron’s first English-language film (which he also edited) isn’t shlock; it’s just mediocre non-shlock. The generically-titled would-be thriller is a dark, draggy police procedural that could be described as a larger-scaled version of “On Dangerous Ground” crossed with a pallid one of “The Silence of the Lambs,” sans the cannibalism. In the end, it doesn’t offer much to chew on.
The titular killer is actually a terrorist, a mass murderer whose work is exhibited in an impressively staged opening sequence in which dozens of people are shot by a sniper during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Baltimore before the perpetrator blows up the high-rise apartment from which he was firing. The response team includes Chief Jackson (Mark Camacho) and members of his force, including rookie cop Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley). But leadership of the investigation quickly passes to veteran FBI Agent Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) and his trusted lieutenant Mackenzie (Jovan Adepo). Lammark notices Falco showing more initiative than her colleagues and so takes her on as a liaison with the local PD.
What follows is a curiously solemn account of the investigation, consisting mostly of numerous conversations around long conference tables as Lammark debates his methods to track down the killer with police officials, politicians and FBI rivals, who want things wrapped up quickly, while justifying the presence of an inexperienced person like Falco on his team. The detail in these discussions is probably fairly authentic but also rather stifling, especially since Mendelsohn tends to overact in an effort to add some quirkiness to the put-upon shamus. There’s also a good deal of emphasis placed on Falco, whom Woodley plays, quite effectively, as a stressed-out neophyte with some secrets in her past that could compromise Lammark’s wisdom in showing such confidence in her.
There are periodic action interruptions—a second mass killing at a mall, a confrontation with a group of extremist suspects in a drug store that turns into a bloody embarrassment. But neither has the punch of the film’s opening; each is actually underplayed, the former shown mostly in security-camera footage and the latter staged without flair. The decision not to sensationalize might be admirable in theory, but it undermines the sense of urgency the film needs.
Naturally the script reaches the predictable point when Lammark is humiliated and removed from the case. But he and Falco continue to follow up leads and trace the killer to a slaughterhouse—the reigning image here is of cows, not lambs—and then a remote farmhouse. The long last act of “To Catch a Killer” prominently features Ralph Ineson and Rosemary Dunsmore as characters who reveal the motivation behind the mayhem and bring matters to a close. It features at least one abrupt surprise, but is more notable for pretensions to psychological explanation that feel dramatically strained rather than satisfying. A postscript involving Falco strives for a sense of triumph on the part of the scorned underdog against an entrenched but inept bureaucracy, but comes off as obvious.
Szifron apparently intends a serious statement about the connection between trauma and violence in modern American society here, but in the form of a suspenseful manhunt. He fails on both counts. The stately, somber pace saps energy and excitement from the pursuit, while the dialogue-driven denouement amounts to little more than boilerplate, however well delivered. Even Carter Burwell, who usually finds a way to add some quirky peculiarity to his scores even in pedestrian movies, offers little more than generic beats in this case.
This is actually an ambitious film, and Szifron, along with his production designer Jason Kisvarday and cinematographer Javier Julia, use the Canadian locations well to convey the dank, gloomy mood appropriate for the story the director wants to tell. But in the end that story proves to be considerably less profound and powerful than the makers imagine.