To Catch a Killer: Psychological Spectacle

Sometimes, when minds collide, they learn each other’s wounds.

To Catch a Killer is the first English film from the Oscar-nominated director of Wild Tales (2014) and his transition to American filmmaking sees him taking on a psychological thriller that centres around the most notorious serial killer in American history. Thought the story isn’t real, Szifron tries to bring us into the story through his characters. Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley) and Geoffery Lammark meet in the aftermath of a mass murder and strike up a unique friendship that pushes them to their mental capacity as they try to capture the killer.

Lammark is a well-spoken and sharp FBI investigator who encounters Eleanor, a cop for the Baltimore PD and he immediately recognizes her talent as an investigator. Eleanor then accompanies Geoffrey and the FBI on the hunt, where the stakes of the case push the FBI and the new colleagues to the brink. Dozens are murdered in one killing spree on New Year’s Eve and the murderer has covered his tracks. The scale of the event puts pressure on Geoffery to capture the killer swiftly, a job that proves harder and harder as two detectives run into problems with suspect investigations and internal power struggles which deter their work.

Shailene Woodley steps into a unique role for herself. As a producer on the film, she clearly saw the chance to work with an acclaimed director like Szifron as one she couldn’t pass up. This role, like some of her other more recent more indie dramatic work, sees her stepping into the shoes of an officer who has talent and grit, but lacks panache. Geoffrey starts to bring that out in her as his cool demeanor and presence of mind act as a role model for Eleanor, a young and aspiring police officer. Still, Eleanor shows her skills, having the focus and foresight to make important choices that help Geoffrey and the FBI catch their killer. With the help of MacKenzie (Jovan Adepo), the team goes through every possible lead to find their suspect but the results are dark and often reveal how Eleanor and Geoffrey are good cops in a rotten system.

The film uses a very formal and omniscient style that reminds me of the recent work of David Fincher. (In fact, one overhead shot of traffic that follows a lineup of police car was very evocative of an overhead tracking shot of a taxi cab in Fincher’s Zodiac.) That being said, when you try to emulate one of the greats, you usually get something interesting, even if its unoriginal. The cinematography never leaves the realm of realism but still features a cold color palette. In doing so, Szifron’s precise cinematography make the camera into an objective witness to some of the terror that unfolds on screen. The film effectively uses handheld shots when focusing on Eleanor, illustrating her rocky past and rugged determination.

Killer‘s focuses on Eleanor and Geoffrey as two outcast cops, a troubled young woman and an aging gay radical detective, and uses their journey to explore the troubled world that we live in. At many points, the investigation that the two undertake seems to lead them to places that expose the reckless endangerment that people in power are willing to put the individual citizens and their subordinates in to be able to calm the public. The individual lives that are ruined by the manhunt for this killer fall into the backdrop but still ask us, was it worth it?

The film’s sketch of Eleanor’s psyche becomes important but the story’s efforts to make that the centre of the narrative seem to fall flat. A lot of it revolves around Eleanor’s connection to the killer but its one that isn’t seen throughout most of the plot, making it very hard to connect to her personal struggles or to that of the killers. The ultimate victims seem to be the outsiders but, with Eleanor and Geoffery being at the centre of the action and the investigation taking so long, that idea falls off in favour of highlighting some of the film’s larger set pieces. Killer clearly values its individual characters but when you only focus on two and aren’t able to make us wholeheartedly care for them it’s hard to care about what happens next to them. When they’re in a world where the most insane and unthinkable things are happening, it’s a little harder to care for the little moments, especially when all of their actions are focused on this insane spectacle of psychological warfare where the damage is quite apparent in the number of deaths.

To Catch a Killer is available in theatres on Friday, April 21st, 2023.

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