By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
From Se7en to The Silence of the Lambs, serial killer investigation movies are a dime a dozen, meaning it takes a project unique in narrative, characterization, and style to truly stand out. To Catch A Killer, a new film from director and co-writer Damián Szifron, excels amidst this enthralling yet oversaturated genre with a compelling central investigation, strong leads, and poignant commentary on mass shootings.
To Catch A Killer follows Eleanor (Shailene Woodley), a police officer who teams up with FBI investigator Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) and fellow FBI agent Mackenzie (Jovan Adepo) to profile and investigate a mass shooter with extraordinary rifle proficiency and meticulous attention to detail.
To Catch A Killer wastes no time at all as the first few minutes plummet the audience into a sequence of harrowing scenes all too reminiscent of modern day America. New Year’s celebrations all around the city of Baltimore are disrupted when a marksman systematically shoots and kills a number of people in high-rise apartments. Amidst the chaotic aftermath of these shootings, Woodley’s police officer Eleanor stands out amongst her colleagues as intelligent, dedicated, and level-headed, thus gaining the attention of Mendelsohn’s FBI investigator tasked with tracking down the shooter. These opening scenes are intense and establish an unrelenting tone that never dissipates for the film’s two-hour runtime. To Catch A Killer is a lean psychological thriller, one that never drags and most certainly never bores.
Much of this success can be attributed to the film’s sharp script, steady directing, and compelling lead performances that collectively make for an immersive and realistic experience in which the viewer feels as if they are with Eleanor and Lammark on their investigation. The audience is never afforded access to the first-person perspective of the unidentified shooter and, instead, is fixed closely to Eleanor and Lammark like a co-investigator. Eleanor and Lammark, like the audience, are given a puzzle to solve with each and every clue that is uncovered bringing them (and us) closer and closer to the identity of the killer. It’s not a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie or Rian Johnson’s Knives Out films with different suspects to rule out, but, rather, a psychologically taxing investigative journey more akin to The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en.
The film and its central investigation also remain grounded throughout with dialogue and plot progressions that feel genuine and earned. This sense of realism is made all the more disturbing by what the film has to say about mass shootings and its lack of fear or hesitation in tackling a topic so sensitive and timely. With references to real-life mass shootings that have plagued the United States in recent years peppered throughout, To Catch A Killer is markedly distinct from other similar films in its attention to killing on a grand scale. This is not Clarice Starling consulting with the cannibal Hannibal Lector to find Buffalo Bill, nor is it two police officers teaming up to track down a serial killer whose murders map onto the seven deadly sins. To Catch A Killer is about the pursuit of a mass shooter, a phenomenon with disturbing realism and relevance to contemporary American life that these other films don’t have. Indeed, several sequences in the film are truly unsettling to say the least and prove to be far scarier than anything found in the average horror film. In less capable hands, this subject matter could be exploited for shock value or come across as insensitive, but director Damián Szifron takes time to offer different perspectives on the type of person who commits such acts of atrocity and meaningfully reflects on the traumatic societal effects of this violence.
At the center of this film are Shailene Woodley and Ben Mendelsohn, who both deliver powerhouse performances that are easily two of the strongest this year so far. With the film focusing so immediately on the murders and subsequent investigation, Szifron takes time developing Woodley and Mendelsohn’s characters with many facets of their characters remaining under wraps for larger portions of the film. When these facets are gradually uncovered, an already compelling psychological thriller becomes a compelling emotional character study, which intelligently connects to and complements the themes of mass violence. Woodley is fantastic as the clever, determined, and troubled Eleanor with a vulnerability and empathy that makes her presence on screen captivating. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, brings a naturalism to his performance with his unique line delivery and calculated body language. Together, the two leads elevate an already impressive psychological thriller.
If there is anything to critique about To Catch A Killer, it’s that, when reduced to its barebones, the film doesn’t reinvent the genre. What it lacks in originality, however, the film makes up for in other areas, as previously mentioned. In addition, there are choices made in the film’s ending that come across as abrupt and jarring. Although the effect of these choices may be purposeful, they nonetheless make for a conclusion that is slightly less satisfying than one would hope.
Featuring powerhouse performances from Shailene Woodley and Ben Mendelsohn, To Catch A Killer is a compelling and immersive psychological thriller and mystery with disturbing and timely relevance. With unrelenting pacing and intensity, the English-language debut from director and co-writer Damián Szifron never ceases to captivate and packs a central investigation full of intrigue and twists and turns. Although the role of mass shootings in the film may prove too disturbing for some, To Catch A Killer easily overcomes a lack of originality and a somewhat jarring ending to be another terrific addition to the serial killer mystery / psychological thriller genre.