To Catch a Killer Fails to Catch Our AttentionMovies Reviews Shailene Woodley
It’s been a while since we’ve been graced with a good ol’ fashioned cat-and-mouse detective flick. Perhaps that’s because the movie market has been slowly squeezing out original IP in favor of Marvel franchises and true crime, or because filmmakers are (understandably) afraid to cower in the shadows of crime thriller staples such as The Silence of the Lambs and Seven.
Whatever the reason for this drought, To Catch a Killer positions itself as a manhunt feature intent on saving the day. It has all the right pieces: A young misfit cop, a twisted serial killer, two equally killer lead actors. It’s just missing two crucial pieces: Suspense and coherence.
Directed by Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifron in his English-language debut, To Catch a Killer follows Eleanor (Shailene Woodley), a young cop with an ambiguously troubled past who gets pulled into a ticking time bomb serial killer investigation. How does she, a rookie, snag such a coveted position, you might ask? Well, because a higher-up overhears her make a poignant metaphor likening killing to swatting mosquitoes. (That’s how the FBI hiring process works, right?) From that point onward, she and no-bullshit FBI agent Geoffrey Lammark (the wonderful Ben Mendelsohn) race against the clock to track down this mosquito-swatter by any means possible.
Here’s the part where I regretfully inform you that this promising premise quickly gives way to disappointment. For the majority of its two-hour runtime, To Catch a Killer vacillates between scenes during which Eleanor and Geoffrey repeatedly and grimly emphasize how important it is that they catch this killer, and tonally confused action sequences that are better suited for an entry into the Bourne franchise than a slow-burn psychological thriller.
Indeed, To Catch a Killer doesn’t quite seem to understand what it wants to be. Some of the slower, dialogue-focused scenes briefly brush against greatness—discussions of criminal psychology often fleetingly recall The Silence of the Lambs—but then one of the characters will quote Kurt Cobain like it’s a mic-drop moment (seriously), or a side character will shout “This guy is going to kill everybody!” and all potential will float away like dust in the wind.
Sadly, the fluctuation between drawn-out scenes of goofy dialogue and by-the-books action sequences makes it so that, when To Catch a Killer manages to strike gold in its final act, you’re already pretty worn down. Indeed, the film’s climactic moment is powerful, well-crafted and well-acted, but it’s tarnished by what came before.
The masterful lead performances in the film are similarly clouded by its tone. Woodley shines in her first major role in a couple years, doing her best to break free from the moody-cop trope by providing her character with an unexpected air of restlessness and uncertainty. Mendelsohn is magnificent as always, playing Lammark with a stoic resolve and even leaning into the hamminess of the script at times.
The same is true for Javier Juliá’s cinematography, which highlights sweeping cityscapes in an effort to demonstrate the scope of terror that our serial killer has unleashed on this grim world. But, unfortunately, grandiose fireworks and scathing close-ups aren’t enough to rescue To Catch a Killer from committing the cardinal sin of a psychological thriller: It’s a little dull.
More than tonally confused or unintentionally campy, To Catch a Killer is tedious. Part of this has to do with the central investigation and its leads not being crafted in a particularly interesting way. Where To Catch a Killer’s predecessors succeed largely from twists and “gotcha” moments, this film doesn’t bring much new or particularly grabbing to the table. The result is what these investigations likely look like in real life: A lot of lists, false leads and a somewhat anticlimactic ending.
To Catch a Killer comes to the table with a lot of pieces that should work—a compelling premise, layered lead performances, sharp editing, breathtaking cinematography, to name a few. But a serial killer flick can only go so far when its creators don’t honor the genre by committing to what makes it great: Tonal confidence and, above all, wicked, adrenaline-pinching suspense.
Director: Damián Szifron
Writers: Damián Szifron, Jonathan Wakeham
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Jovan Adepo, Ralph Ineson, Rosemary Dunsmore
Release Date: April 21, 2023
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.