3 out of 5 stars

To Catch a Killer has a thrilling opening. At a Baltimore New Year’s Eve party in a penthouse, an unseen sniper shoots and kills 29 partygoers before exploding fireworks as a cover. Young police officer Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley) is the only person who manages to determine where the bullets are coming from, but by the time she can direct the police to a nearby highrise, the killer is gone. And her suspicions are confirmed once the building explodes, eliminating any evidence. It’s a claustrophobic, sometimes graphic opening sequence that’s sadly never surpassed.

Eleanor’s bravery and deductions impress FBI Chief Investigator Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn), who recruits her to help with the nationwide manhunt. Whilst his team think a terrorist organisation are involved, Eleanor is the only person who believes it must be a lone wolf. Lammark takes a chance on Falco, assuming she’s either a genius or just as messed up as the killer. Turns out it’s a bit of both.

Predictably, Falco has a dark past and is something of a lone wolf herself, previously applying to be a federal agent but failing their psychological tests. She has a traumatic backstory, although it feels underwritten in director Damian Szifron and Jonathan Wakeham’s screenplay. There’s a hint of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to the troubled female protagonist’s cat-and-mouse chase with the killer, only without any of the depth. So, despite an almost two-hour run time, there’s so much left to be said about our protagonist.

The public and media start to get anxious and demand a quick solution to the case, which causes the police to start indiscriminately arresting everyone who half fits the shooter’s description. The core group of agents would rather work through the profiling and evidence methodically, even if that displeases those in power who want speed over accuracy. One of the few unique things about To Catch a Killer is the power battle between the police and the media.

The last half hour is where the pacing finally begins to speed up. It’s no coincidence things start getting interesting once the leads leave the city and head to the wintery countryside to find the murderer’s hideout. The closing scenes are genuinely chilling, it just takes too long to get there.

The intel unearthed in the final act is intended to make a meaningful statement about social isolation and the danger of conspiracy theories, but it comes a little late to be explored in the sensitive way the topic should be handled. The subject of the lone wolf and the bigotry that creates the type of monster who commit crimes like this feels so relevant today. To Catch a Killer could have been a remarkable piece of crime storytelling if it had concentrated more on the psychology that leads to someone committing such a heinous act and less on generic police procedures.

Woodley and Mendelsohn do what they can with cardboard cutout characters. Woodley, especially, commits to what would be a very bland lead role in the hands of a lesser actress. Whilst it’s implied these two are difficult because of their complex past, the writing doesn’t allow the actors to explore the deeper layers of their characters.

Argentine writer-director Damian Szifron made a huge splash with Wild Tales (2014), a flamboyant black comedy about human behaviour. It’s taken him almost a decade to follow up this Academy Award-nominee, so it’s a surprise he chose the rather mundane To Catch a Killer.

Cinematographer Javier Julia uses many everyday settings to create a tense, haunted atmosphere. There are some incredibly taut scenes in retail spaces where we know something bad is about to happen, and the obnoxious brightness of mall food courts and snowy landscapes are brilliantly contrasted by a foreboding sense of danger in the air.

To Catch a Killer works as a police procedural with just enough intrigue to stop it from feeling like a paint-by-numbers crime drama. It wants to make a bold statement about the cultural atmosphere that breeds killers but fails to commit to the cause. The climax also feels awkwardly flat, despite a tense build-up. The film is almost too polished and ends so neatly it slips into being forgettable.

Ultimately, Szifron’s English-language debut has some thrilling sequences and heaps of potential, but it gets bogged down by two-dimensional characters, stale backstories, and subplots which don’t advance the story.

USA | 2023 | 119 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

director: Damián Szifro.
writer: Damián Szifro & Jonathan Wakeham.
starring: Sheilene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Jovan Adepo & Ralph Ineson.