Director Damián Szifron’s first English language film amounts to echoes of past better works.
Throughout Argentine director Damián Szifron’s To Catch a Killer, nothing seems new. A serial killer procedural featuring a young cop and an older FBI agent, Szifron’s first English-language film attempts to derive success from previous entries in the genre. Audiences and critics alike will almost certainly compare it to more original efforts. Unfortunately, Szifron’s unable to put personality, verve, or distinction into To Catch a Killer.
With Shailene Woodley as Eleanor and Ben Mendelsohn as Lammark, the film contains the bones for thrills. But it’s a skeletal version of greater films. Disengaged performances, paint-by-numbers plot beats, and a vanished antagonist give it little meat. Szifron clearly has interest in this genre style of filmmaking. Nonetheless, his script, co-written with Jonathan Wakeham, lacks the ingenuity he’s hoping to emulate.
To Catch a Killer pairs city cop Eleanor with FBI mainstay Lammark after a mass shooter wreaks havoc in Baltimore. Eleanor has a dark past, one left unexplained until a single outburst lasting all of 20 seconds. Lammark is hoping to make his mark with one big, last case. Together, they make a supposedly unlikely pair. But, unlikely or not, it’s familiar pairing audiences have seen time and time again. So the choice mimics rather than amazes.
When Eleanor and Lammark get kicked off the case due to bureaucratic incompetence, they inevitably take matters into their own hands. Szifron show here he has something to say about the government’s ineptitude. In particular, he wants to comment on the use of news networks in an agenda obsessed with image. Still, the director’s thoughts seem scattered, at best. And even these scattered criticisms land with the heaviest of hands. They show little understanding of the real reasons behind surges of violence, gun usage, and the prevalence of serial killers in the United States, a talking point that’s becoming cyclically relevant.
Eleanor’s detective work doesn’t seem too difficult or precarious until the final twenty minutes. Simultaneously, Lammark’s mentorship of this “troubled” cop amounts to little. These two characters remain thin throughout. Like the film they exist within, they’re rough sketches of people, written on a page and never translated into personhood. The supporting characters surrounding them are even less complete. They act as genres of people seen in movies, not translating into anyone seen, heard, or understood in the real world.
[To Catch a Killer] rides along the back of other more murderous, more technical, more astonishing thrillers.
Woodley cannot live up to the Jodie Foster of it all. On the other hand, while Mendelsohn’s acting remains above the standard of the rest of the thriller, he never seems interested in the material. Visually, To Catch a Killer looks just fine. It’s slick when needed but rarely rises above a passable grade. There’s an uncomplicated competence with the entire production, which becomes the film’s most significant problem. It rides along the back of other more murderous, more technical, more astonishing thrillers. Even if made with reverence, Szifron’s homage will forever exist in the shadow of those other films.
2014’s Wild Tales demonstrated the Argentine director’s creative acumen, political musings, and affection for comedy. To Catch a Killer capitalizes on none of those strengths. Szifron seems ill-suited for the genre. The story lacks the imagination and personality of previous work. Everyone involved will likely create better work in the future. Meanwhile, To Catch a Killer will fall under the list of hundreds of films unable to live up to its influences.
To Catch a Killer tries to, well, catch a killer starting April 21 in theatres.