Credit: Zach Dilgard/Tribeca Film Festival
by Morris Yang Featured Film

The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write about a Serial Killer — Tolga Karaçelik [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 12, 2024

Narrative, as academics and book club members alike will tell you, is as much about process as it is about the final product. A story that engages throughout, only to falter in its resolution, will often be duly lamented; a novel that picks apart the conventions it adapts usually garners more attention than the more prosaic of its ilk. It is to these observations that literary metafiction attests, for what better way to champion the joys of reading and writing than to question their very enterprises relentlessly? Such is the conceit of Tolga Karaçelik’s latest feature, boasting a mouthful of a title — The Shallow Tale of a Writer Who Decided to Write About a Serial Killer — that affixes personal agency (“decided”), decries it insufficient (“shallow”), and renders the whole thing (“tale”) non-committal anyway. Dark comedy and situational cluelessness come to an exasperating if drolly invigorating head, which is almost always the default for films set in New York but works, luckily, as a charm rather than as criticism here.

Keane (John Magaro), a small-time writer with outsized ambitions, is working on his second book, a speculative romance between a prehistoric woman and a male Neanderthal. But his work hardly amounts to working, and Suzie (Britt Lower), his wife and breadwinner, itches for a divorce from this painfully weak-willed nebbish who can’t quite commit to independent decision-making of any sort, much less his fictional corpus. Into the tedium of creative bankruptcy springs Kollmick (Steve Buscemi), a bespectacled and surprisingly mild-mannered older man considering his CV. A retired serial killer is how he’s introduced to Keane, and his motive for befriending the latter, while less gruesome, still contains room for ambiguity: Keane will write a book about his exploits, having first acclimatized to the mind and mentality of those who murder. But what’s in it for Kollmick, really? And how will this acclimatization take place?

The Shallow Tale… may disappoint expectations of a snappy, straightforward psychological journey, and its many detours fall just short of answering these questions. Instead, Karaçelik’s frenzied screenplay embraces its winding tonal shifts, speaking to a greater freedom within the act of literary improvisation and engendering, more modestly, the thrill of seeing its characters inhabit and exchange very different registers. Kollmick comes up to Keane’s place late at night for a drink, and Suzie, mistaking him for a marriage counselor, sees this as a mark of her hubby’s newfound sense of initiative. Barely a few scenes after, as both men attempt to kidnap Keane’s literary agent, does this initiative morph into something more nefarious and alarming for the usually impassive professional organizer. This blend of sympathy and neuroticism suffuses the film, as Keane’s pathetic disposition (Magaro’s character in Past Lives, essentially, but dialed up to an eleven) and the balance between disquieting and casually genial (for the other two leads) make for an enlivening reinvention of the soap opera. While not disarmingly reflexive or insistent upon its grandeur, The Shallow Tale… does venture that an author’s success, irrespective of Pulitzers or pulp fiction, is measured by the whoops and hollers of their readers. And by this standard, it measures pretty well itself.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.