Movie marketers flirt with disaster by citing classic films in their material.
The team behind “To Catch a Killer” summons the spirit of Clarice Starling, immortalized by Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“Killer” isn’t in the same league as “Lambs,” nor does star Shailene Woodley capture the complexities Foster summoned in her Oscar-winning role.
Taken on its own, “To Catch a Killer” is diverting for a spell, conjuring a fear of mass shootings that feels all too real given the tenor of the times.
Woodley plays Eleanor, a low-level Baltimore cop on the scene for the worst mass shooting imaginable. The killer struck early and often and with deadly accuracy.
Dozens are dead, and local officials scramble to show voters they’re making progress on the case.
Eleanor’s instincts catch the attention of Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn), the man leading the investigation. Together, they scour the city for clues while trying to piece together a profile of a killer who doesn’t fit any existing mold.
That mass shooting, and the early investigation, set “Killer” apart from like-minded stories. It helps that Mendelsohn brings something vital to every performance, a presence that elevates even mundane moments. (If you missed the first season of Netflix’s “Bloodline,” start binging Mendelsohn’s best performance to date ASAP.)
Director Damián Szifron helps with sly visual tweaks, turning routine police maneuvers into dynamic moments.
“To Catch a Killer” serves up an impressive first act, filled with a fear that anyone can relate to given recent headlines.
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Eleanor’s detective work gets them closer to the suspect, but the film’s decision to lay all its cards on the table does the story a disservice. The finale, which should be mesmerizing given the setup, instead becomes a labored affair bereft of meaning.
“To Catch a Killer” hits the two-hour mark, enough time to deliver well-developed characters and meaty themes. Instead, Eleanor’s back story feels rushed and inauthentic, and supporting players like Jovan Adepo as a supportive FBI agent lack enough screen time to matter.
We’re treated to radio show snippets throughout the film that capture the endless debates over mass shootings. We need gun control! It’s the culture’s fault! It feels perfunctory as if audiences haven’t heard those arguments on a loop for the past ten years.
Why bother reciting them here?
#NowWatching: TO CATCH A KILLER
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Woodley’s character similarly fails to persuade us beyond her ability to think outside the box. She has a troubled past, but there’s little in the screenplay, or her performance, that sells it. Why not make her a young cop who refuses to play by the rules?
Naturally, “Killer” offers a brief detour to bash right-wing militia types, accompanied by an action set piece that makes no sense. To the film’s credit, another sequence veers into America bashing, but it’s balanced by a character’s rebuttal that comes across as authentic.
That Eleanor/Geoffrey dynamic is the heart and soul of “To Catch a Killer,” but it’s not enough to make the thriller stand out from a crowded marketplace.
HiT or Miss: “To Catch a Killer” might be the most generic movie title of 2023. The film itself lives down to that description, but several sequences suggest a greater movie lurking within.