Cop stands with a crowd of people, looking very concerned.

Film Review: To Catch A Killer

Film Reviews

To Catch A Killer
Director: Damián Szifron

FilmNation Entertainment and RainMaker Films
In Theaters: 04.21

It’s disturbing and unsurprising that movies about mass shooter events have become a subgenre, with entries ranging from powerful artistic works to pure exploitation. The new Shailene Woodley vehicle, To Catch a Killer, isn’t the worst movie to come out of this trend, though it’s a likely contender.

Woodley plays Eleanor Falco, a Baltimore beat cop who is caught up in the thick of things when a sniper kills 29 people on New Year’s Eve, the sounds of gunfire all but completely hidden by a spectacular fireworks display in the heart of the city. Eleanor’s coolheadedness during the attack and keen observations afterwards catch the eye of the FBI’s chief investigator, Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn, Ready Player One), who recruits her to assist in profiling and tracking down the shooter. 

As a nationwide manhunt begins, questions begin to surface among the police regarding  Eleanor’s qualifications and her fitness for duty. It seems that our heroine has vague physiological issues, which, according to this movie, make her the ideal person to get inside the mind of the shooter. Soon, it becomes a race against time to find this highly skilled  “Olympic class marksman” and bring him to justice before he strikes again.

At its best, To Catch a Killer is a mildly entertaining, ’90s throwback, police procedural thriller. At its worst, it’s brazenly tasteless opportunism using one our country’s most unthinkable crises as fodder for a lurid Silence of the Lambs imitation. It isn’t insightful or intelligent, and I found myself either rolling my eyes, putting my face in my palm or even letting out an occasional guffaw of embarrassment. 

Despite going to great lengths to check off a list of subjects that feel necessary  in a film about gun violence—including racism, terrorism, mental health issues and cursory mentions of guns themselves—none of them are dealt with in a meaningful way. While it would be a mistake to attempt to explain why such crimes are committed by drawing blanket conclusions, To Catch A Killer is too non committal about what it wants to say. When we eventually learn the identity of the killer, his motives are so murky and ill defined that more appropriate titles for the movie might have been Because of Reasons or The Origin of Specious.  

Szifron, an Aergentinian filmmaker and BAFTA winner for Wild Tales, makes his English-language debut with To Catch a Killer. His eye for  framing and staging shows plenty of potential. He directs the opening massacre sequence with skill, (sometimes too much) flourish and a preoccupation for money shots that edges into Michael Bay territory. Szifron seems oblivious that it’s uncomfortable to see innocent bystanders being mowed down by a mad gunman play out as an intricate action set piece. 

This isn’t the only puzzling choice he makes. In one sequence, the camera rack focuses away from Eleanor in order make sure we get a good look at the reactions of a fellow officer who has, up this point, been inconsequential, and we see his specific reactions to a news report about another shooting, bringing our full attention to him out of nowhere, bizarrely telegraphing that something is about to happen with this guy. When this same officer is killed two scenes later, he gets a look on his face as if to say, “So that’s why the camera was focusin’ on me. Look, Ma! Your boy is a full fledged supporting … character …” and then dies. 

The acting isn’t bad, though Woodley is an iffy choice for the role of Eleanor. The Divergent star’s strength lies in her quiet believability rather than in being an engaging presence, and she rarely feels like a true protagonist. Mendelssohn fares better, as does Jovan Adepo (Fences) as MacKenzie, an agent working under Lammark teaching Eleanor the ropes. No actor is given a character that ever feels believable, and there’s a significant amount of talent wasted here.

To Catch a Killer achieves neither the blistering relevance of Fran KranzMass or the depths of repugnance of the Die Hard in a High School–propaganda flick Run Hide Fight. The best thing about this film is that it’s likely to be quickly forgotten. To Catch a Killer is far too stupid to be taken seriously and too disturbing and wrongheaded to be enjoyed as escapist entertainment.

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