Arriving just 70 seconds into the film, the inciting incident of Damián David Szifron’s To Catch a Killer might break some kind of informal record for expediency. It’s New Year’s Eve in Baltimore (with Montreal none-too-convincingly filling in for Charm City), and revelers congregate and take selfies at sprawling rooftop parties against the backdrop of fireworks. Without warning, one of them collapses to the ground, the whiz of a far off gunshot muffled by the pumping club music. The same thing happens again at a balcony hot tub party a few blocks away. Then again at a nearby outdoor skating rink. A spree killer armed with a high powered rifle in an elevated location is indiscriminately opening fire on people, and by the time the shooting is over, 29 are dead, with the suspect having rigged his perch with explosives and escaping amidst the chaos. Into the fray rushes beat cop Eleanor (Shailene Woodley), who runs up a dozen flights of stairs without an oxygen mask, collapsing at the smoldering, smoke-filled crime scene, putting herself and her fellow officers in danger, although not before silently signaling to Special Agent Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) to test the apartment’s toilet for trace evidence. Impulsive and inexperienced — Woodley reads as even younger than her actual age of 31 here — Eleanor is of dubious qualifications to play a central role in the investigation that’s to follow, but Lammark admires her instincts. She’s got spunk, and he loves spunk.
The random nature of the victims and staggering body count calls to mind the Route 91 Festival massacre, and the Las Vegas mass shooting is indeed name-checked here, as are Covid lockdowns and political extremist groups like the Three Percenters. All of which is to say, the film is attempting to set its story amidst our current and endless national debate about gun violence and a polarized population where angry white men are isolated and radicalized. The staging of the shooting is arguably in poor taste — the film is attempting to be released in a week that doesn’t coincide with a high-profile mass shooting, a near impossible task — but all the same, it’s brutally effective in conveying the pervasive fear of being gunned down in a public place. To Catch a Killer moves between a series of locations bustling with humanity, allowing just enough time to scan the frame in anticipation of whose head might explode in a red mist — Szifron repeats this motif a few times throughout the film, even in scenes where there is no immediate violence, creating an unnerving Pavlovian effect. The sequence then concludes with an evocative shot where forensics teams located around the city trace the trajectory of the shooter using green lasers, all pointing toward the same high-rise window just as it explodes with comic-book villain flourish.
The investigation is led by Lammark, a sour, paranoid G-man who speaks in rah-rah platitudes — the film attempts to humanize the character by giving him a doting husband, which it cynically treats as a “gotcha” twist. Stymied by the mayor’s office which refuses to lock down the city out of fear of losing a multi-billion-dollar development deal, and penned in by his D.C. bosses who second-guess his methods, Lammark finds himself on a short leash and unsure of who he can even trust; that is, until he overhears Eleanor describing the killer in language better suited for a Tumblr post than a bullpen — “Evil is cutting off a bird’s wing just to see what happens; this guy’s swatting mosquitoes” — and takes a shine to her. Highlighting her history of insubordination, mental illness, and substance abuse as assets for this case, Lammark elevates Eleanor to his small investigative team (alongside Babylon’s Jovan Adepo), hoping she’ll be able to recognize the scent of another disenfranchised loner before he strikes again. It’s a laughable conceit, attempting to recreate the Will Graham-Jack Crawford dynamic of Manhunter, only if Graham’s prior experience was limited to rousting drunks and making coffee. The film frequently has to contort itself simply to justify laying the case at the feet of a shaky greenhorn instead of, say, an experienced criminal profiler (Woodley, for her part, comes across every bit as lost as one would expect, never quite tapping into an alleged reservoir of dysfunction and unique insight). In the end, the case is broken wide open not by depression as an investigative superpower, but by cross-referencing bank records… ya know, boring old police work.
Ostensibly a dry procedural, the manhunt for a suspect converges with a lament for the state of American culture. The investigation reveals the way military-grade weapons meant for decommissioning trickle down to specialty gun dealerships, and the killings themselves only further open up existing fissures along racial and political lines; the film goes off on a tangent that concludes with a violent shootout in a pharmacy with white nationalists that, while thrilling in the moment, is a narrative dead-end. Szifron, an Argentine director (whose previous film, 2014’s Wild Tales, also opened with a shocking act of mass violence, although it was played for black comedy there), attempts to bring an outsider’s perspective to the material, and clearly has more on his mind than just cheap thrills. You can feel the film fumbling around for some sort of an explanation for this decidedly American phenomenon, but it loses its nerve somewhere along the way, abandoning any kind of stinging indictment for a wan variation on “hurt people hurt people.” For all of its superficial nods to racial profiling and conservative news personalities riling up their viewership, the film ultimately comes down to a showdown at a farmhouse between the good guys and a chatty, only-in-the-movies criminal mastermind who’s at all times several steps ahead of his pursuers. No one expects a film like this to solve a problem as insidious and culturally ingrained as gun violence, but it’s still an especially abrupt and disappointing reversion to the same old bullshit. It’s all as generic as its title implies.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.