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To Catch a Killer

After a deadly sniper leaves 29 people dead on New Year’s Eve, the FBI's chief investigator Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) lectures the Baltimore Police Department that their suspect is not a type, reminding them that he is a person and that “somebody loved him, somebody trained him, and somebody sold him that gun.” Among those listening is a young beat cop named Eleanor (Shailene Woodley, who also serves as producer), who was a first responder on the night of the attack. The two attempt to navigate a corrupt system that is more concerned with the public’s opinion of them than with the public’s safety in Damián Szifron’s “To Catch a Killer.”

The thriller, which Szifron co-wrote with Jonathan Wakeham, aims to use the serial killer movie formula to critique our failing systems and take shots at everything from politicians to the FBI to police departments to the media to jingoistic fascists to the military-industrial complex to the NRA to America’s limited access to mental health care. However, its ambitions overwhelm its abilities. While Szifron and cinematographer Javier Juliá’s imagery is stylish—and well-lit!—their work is hampered by overwrought plotting and underdeveloped characters.

Woodley’s Eleanor is introduced similarly to Angelia Jolie’s character in Phillip Noyce’s far superior entry in the genre, 1999’s “The Bone Collector.” After she arrives on the scene of the shooting, a nearby apartment explodes. Her quick wits lead her to get the other beat cops to start recording all the faces of those fleeing the destruction, lest the shooter is among them. That the script doesn’t use this moment to say anything about our current surveillance state remains a curious oversight. 

Later, while investigating the remains of the bombed-out apartment, she helps the FBI think outside the box in terms of places the perpetrator may have left his DNA. After fishing some feces out of a toilet, they discover the perp has an iron deficiency and, therefore, may be a vegetarian. This fresh perspective leads Lammark to reassign Eleanor as BPD’s liaison to the FBI. From there, the film moves through the exact kind of investigative beats you’d expect, with Eleanor lending her brain to Lammark and his team, including charismatic FBI Agent Jack Mackenzie (Jovan Adepo). 

Unfortunately, certain moments, like a dinner discussion between Lammark and his husband Gavin (Michael Cram), devolve into trite didacticism. And, other than being gay, Lammark feels like a stereotypical hard-as-nails cop. Although Mendelsohn attempts to bring complexity to the character, many of his flowery speeches come off like parodies of those given by Mandy Patinkin’s poetic profiler Gideon in the early seasons of “Criminal Minds.”

Eleanor is positioned as a “modern-day Clarice Starling,” yet Woodley is sorely out of her depth here. Scenes of her returning to the sparse apartment she shares with a cat (whose name we never learn) to pensively take a bath, swimming alone in a large Olympic pool, or walking the streets at night alone are meant to paint her as a loner, but again mostly play like a parody of this kind of character. 

For about two-thirds of the runtime, I was on board with what the film was trying to do even despite these flaws in characterization. But when it was revealed that the FBI had rejected Eleanor because she failed her psyche eval, yet Lammark thought she was the right person to catch this killer because of her tortured soul, the film lost me completely. Eleanor is no Will Graham, and Woodley is not up to the task of bringing the kind of layers Hugh Dancy brought to that character on “Hannibal” for three seasons. 

When Eleanor finally does end up face to face with the killer, Woodley simply does not have the gravitas needed to pull off the intended emotions of the scene. She’s also responsible for maybe the worst line delivery of the year, pleading with the killer to seek medical care, exclaiming, “Medication. That shit works.”

Terrible dialogue aside, what is most disappointing about the film's third act is how it botches its attempt at a sophisticated critique of the many broken systems plaguing modern American society. Ultimately, "To Catch a Killer" blames all of the gruesome violence it depicts on the perpetrator’s mental health and offers only a surface-level exploration of the system that failed him. 

On VOD and in limited release today.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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Film Credits

To Catch a Killer movie poster

To Catch a Killer (2023)

Rated R for strong violent content, and language throughout.

119 minutes

Cast

Shailene Woodley as Eleanor Falco

Ben Mendelsohn as Geoffrey Lammark

Jovan Adepo as MacKenzie

Ralph Ineson as Dean Possey

Rosemary Dunsmore as Mrs. Possey

Jason Cavalier as Marquand

Mark Camacho as Chief Karl Jackson

Darcy Laurie as Ramsey Lang

Karine Dion as Mrs. Miller

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Composer

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