Synopsis: A talented but troubled Baltimore police officer is recruited by the FBI’s chief investigator to help profile and track down a disturbed individual terrorizing the city.
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Jovan Adepo, Ralph Ineson, Rosemary Dunsmore
Director: Damián Szifron
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher why a film would ditch a decent title for one so dull you couldn’t blame the average viewer if they pass it up because it sounds achingly basic. That happened with the psychological thriller To Catch a Killer, which underwent a name change during post-production after filming around Canada in early 2021 under the title Misanthrope. It’s not as if the average viewer with confuse this slick crime procedural for Molière’s 17th-century play The Misanthrope…right?
Or perhaps it was because some audiences would be like me and need to Google the definition of the word misanthrope: a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society before making up their minds to take a chance on the film. Oscar-nominated writer/director Damián Szifron (his 2014 film Wild Tales was up for Best International Feature in 2015 after a successful run at Cannes) created anything but generic work. Still, I think it has an uphill battle to find its intended audience with its current ho-hum name.
Opening with a bang during Baltimore’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, it takes us a few seconds to realize the parties we’re visiting are turning into murder scenes as a sniper begins eliminating people at random. Dozens of people are killed in a short time frame, the gunshots hidden by the fireworks spectacle happening all around the city. Police Officer Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley, The Last Letter from Your Lover) is near one of these crime scenes and a first responder, following a hot trail directly to where the sniper took aim. When the tables are turned on local officers and the incoming FBI task force headed by Agent Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn, Cyrano), Falco’s quick thinking onsite gets her noticed and, eventually, assigned to Lammark’s outfit.
Calling on her skills as a proficient officer and her instincts as someone struggling with a dark past, Falco works with Lammark and fellow Agent Mackenzie (Jovan Adepo, Overlord) to create a profile of the killer to determine if (and when) they will strike again. Wading through red tape protocols and a sea of bureaucrats thinking more about their careers than the safety of their constituents, the trio is consistently thwarted by lesser minds who aren’t asking the right questions, all while potential leads vanish into thin air. As the stress of resolving the case grows, the nagging demons she’s suppressed for years come knocking on Falco’s door.
Even I went into To Catch a Killer, not expecting much. Clearly, the movie’s budget was spent on the film itself and not through marketing because the poster and trailer leave much to be desired. If those didn’t do their job of selling me, the pitch wasn’t great either, by comparing Woodley’s character to Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. Anytime you invoke that unparalleled classic, you better come to the table ready to work for your supper and clean the dishes while you’re at it.
Thankfully, Szifron and co-screenwriter Jonathan Wakeham have delivered a (mostly) quality thriller, with rough patches threatening its credibility in critical moments. These iffy scenes are pretty bad, mostly revolving around the illogical moves being made by the FBI to serve as plot devices to get the film from Point A to Point B. There had to be better ways to transition characters through their arcs than to force them so crudely along. It’s got the benefit of a full-throttle opening (recent Oscar-nominee Carter Burwell contributes the score), and cinematographer Javier Julia (also represented at the 2023 Oscars with Argentina, 1985) manages to find a handful of gorgeous camera shots to fit in between the chilly winter scenes of Montreal, standing in for Baltimore. (Also, if you didn’t recognize Montreal, you’d be able to notice the larger-than-normal amount of Canadian accents in this release. I know a Baltimore accent when I hear one, and these actors are full-on Canuck)
Recommended to fans that miss those lovely barn burner serial killer thrillers that would get released every few weeks back in the late ‘90s/early ’00s, To Catch a Killer may have a dinky title, but it’s a classy effort. Woodley is, as usual, in top form, and her pairing with Mendelsohn, on this case, creates a snappy chemistry that is easy to engage with. I’d love to see Woodley take this Falco character forward in another film/case – but please don’t call it something lame like The Hunt or Eyes in the Dark.