Shailene Woodley, the versatile, dedicated and realism-drenched actress who never makes a wrong move (I’m still haunted by her galvanizing performances as both a spirited young cancer patient in The Fault in Our Stars and the heroic survivor of a calamitous hurricane at sea in Adrift) delivers another blockbuster punch in the above-average action thriller To Catch a Killer. She’s teamed with the equally superb Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, and their chemistry will keep your mind alert and your temples pounding.
TO CATCH A KILLER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
This film wastes no time finding an immediate pace that only occasionally pauses to catch its breath. It begins shockingly on New Year’s Eve nearing the stroke of midnight when crowds of innocent partygoers in Baltimore enjoying the fireworks are suddenly massacred in hot tubs, elevators, cocktail lounges with glass windows and on the street. A savage serial killer is on the loose and as the casualties multiply, the intuitions of a rookie cop named Eleanor Falco (Woodley) attract the attention of a seasoned FBI special agent summoned from the regional Maryland field office named Geoffrey Lammark (Mendelsohn) to find and catch the anonymous terrorist.
What threatens to be another routine police procedural is quickly elevated by the keenly observational direction of Damián Szifron, who wrote the clever and suspenseful screenplay with Jonathan Wakeham. Once Lammark recruits Eleanor as his assistant-confidante, eyebrows raise, snafus ensue, and sparks fly. Lammark is tough, demanding and hard as rock. He is also secretly gay. Eleanor is inexperienced, nauseated by violence of any kind, but informed by a troubled psychological past of her own with scars on her wrists to prove it. As a liaison between the Bureau and the Baltimore police department, she provides insights into the twisted mind of a skilled sniper that Lammark finds essential, grafted onto the fearless spirit and curiosity of a young Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs.
As the details of the investigation unfold, the writer-director’s refusal to fall into a familiar collection of cliches is admirable, but from the chain of command to the cell-phone surveillance to the technical descriptions of outdated weapons to the ballistics, the specifics of the strategy are hard to follow. While the film explores the crime team’s strengths as law enforcement officers, it also reveals their weaknesses as people. Lammark’s husband is brought in for no reason, Eleanor’s analysis of the killer’s motivations is annoying. But the dialogue is intelligent and believable, and the actors’ charisma is undeniable.
Ms. Woodley plays it on the verge of mental and physical exhaustion, rubbing the pain from her eye and managing the stress of the job the way aspirin acts on backaches, giving every scene a little something extra. The dark, freezing cold of Baltimore in the winter (played by Montreal) is fully captured by the punishing cinematography of Javier Julia. So, for the most part, To Catch a Killer is a thriller that thrills more than other similar films do, and Shailene Woodley adds another laurel to her already impressive resume.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.