To Catch a Killer

For the first half-hour, To Catch a Killer is outstanding. Then it gradually, consistently goes downhill. This is the latest film from director Damian Szifron, whose 2014 Wild Tales was bold and innovative. It's hard to believe the same person made something as pedestrian as this picture turns out to be. The goal was obviously to make a Silence of the Lambs for a new generation. In reality, they've made an unsatisfying knockoff.

The opening is harrowing. People in Baltimore are seen reveling on New Year's Eve. A series of shots ring out, each one claiming a victim. Cops flood the area, including Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley). They determine the shots came from a particular hotel room window, but there's an explosion in that room before they can check it out.

FBI investigator Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) is brought in when no trace of the culprit is found in the wreckage, not even DNA. He starts profiling the killer. Falco offers up a few intriguing thoughts, spurring him to bring her on as his liaison with the Baltimore Police Department. Lammark recognizes that she's a deeply troubled person and suspects she might be able to identify with the killer in useful ways.

What follows is supposed to be a tense cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and the unknown psycho, kind of like how Clarice Starling tracked down Buffalo Bill. Instead, To Catch a Killer gets bogged down in scene after scene of Lammark explaining to Falco how profiling works. After each incident of that, she tosses out more of her own conclusions. There is one additional action scene where they believe the killer is visiting a convenience store. Otherwise, the movie keeps treading the same talky ground, slowing the pace in the process.

Eventually, the guy is ID-ed, leading to an ostensibly perilous confrontation between him and Falco. Surprisingly, the film is at its talkiest here, as the man rambles on and on about his motivation. She, meanwhile, is supposedly tapping into her own dysfunction to hold him at bay. The root causes of her dysfunction are never fully explained, however, and that robs the finale of any suspense it may have potentially had. Aside from her constant moody gazes, we don't really know anything about Eleanor's troubles, so buying into the idea that she's getting on the same mental wavelength as a murderer is rendered moot.

Woodley does what she can with underdeveloped material, and Mendelsohn is typically good as the profiler. To Catch a Killer is strangely inert as a story about a serial killer hunt, though. It plods when it should be electrifying us, and goes for silly screenwriting gimmicks instead of aiming for psychological insight. You get an amazing opening 30 minutes, followed by increasing tedium.

out of four

To Catch a Killer is rated R for strong violent content, and language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.