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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



To Catch a Killer, Review: Mass murderer vs FBI veteran and rookie policewoman

To Catch a Killer, Review: Mass murderer vs FBI veteran and rookie policewoman

It’s a tame title, considering the killer puts down 29 individuals in the first round of his carnage. The other title, Misanthrope, is vague. It’s not nail-biting stuff, rather a thinking man’s whodunit, with occasional movements towards the edge of the seat. Mounted on a great scale, it is unable to escape the familiar tropes: Good officer being bullied, taking the rookie under his wing, a couple of false alarms that leave a trail of dead.

Alfred Hitchcock made a thriller way back in 1955, To Catch a Thief, whose premise was it takes a thief to catch a thief. And guess who do they find matching the psyche of the elusive eliminator? The least likely candidate. To Catch a Killer is slickly made, but becomes a captive of trope syndrome. See it, nevertheless.

On New Year’s Eve mass in Baltimore, among the booming festivities, somebody shoots down 29 innocent people, with perfect aim, and does not leave any traces. A policewoman, Eleanor, who was attending to a trivial call in a restaurant, is an eye-witness and asks everybody around to take as many pictures as possible. Who knows, the killer might be among them? Gradually, she gets into the good books of Lammark, the FBI officer-in-charge. Eleanor is a young and talented but troubled officer of the Baltimore Police Department, wrestling with the demons of her past, including drug addiction when she is recruited by Lammark, the FBI's chief investigator, to help profile and track down the super sniper who is committing a series of seemingly-unrelated mass shootings. Given her tortured psyche, Eleanor may be the only person who can understand the mind of the assailant and bring him to justice.

On a gambit, Lammark puts the news on network TV, in the hope that the criminal will phone in. He does, but his call cannot be traced. Forces higher-up zero-in on another suspect, bypassing Lamarrk, one with possible ISIS connections. It runs out that he is not even armed, and, when cornered with gun-toting lawmen, he jumps out of a high-rise window. Lamarrk and Eleanor are back on the job. The search takes them far and wide, and on one occasion, she sifts through tons of garbage to find a shirt the suspect might have worn. Then, and on one occasion Lammark crosses the line. He interrogates somebody without having the authority to do so. He has to pay with his job, but he gets a lead. He rules out racists, ISIS and other terror groups, who are the prime target of the investigation conducted parallel. So, he is sacked. But Eleanor agrees to work with him secretly.

Describing himself as a screenwriter who writes about self-made heroes, fighting injustice with humour, heart and hope, Jonathan Wakeham shares writing credit with the director, Damián Szifron. Szifron is Argentinian, and has directed both the most successful Argentinian film ever and the most successful TV show ever. Impeccable credentials. And now comes the Hollywood. It would be demeaning to say that To Catch a Killer is not likely to be the best ever Hollywood film debut. Yet, the stylisation he brings to the narrative is impressive. Just when you thought it was all bang-bang, there is a scene in a mortuary, to bring you back to earth. Wakeham and Szifron try hard to break the shackles of the tropes of films about mass murders and FBI investigations, but succeed only partly. A nice little scene has Lamarrk asking Eleanor to come for dinner and wine, the complete nonchalance with which she dismisses its possible implications. On the other hand, the epilogue, beautifully penned, gets out of hand. It is over-written.

Whenever death comes, it is instantaneous, and the sense of panic at the scenes of the shootings is palpable. In fact, the two main protagonists hardly get to use their weapons, a rarity in crime/mass murder thrillers. Their pairing is carefully thought out as well: one in his late 50s and another in her mid-late 20s. Dialogue is rattled off at breakneck speed, and mumbled on occasion, and I have to thank the sub-titling for making the film more intelligible.

Co-Producer Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars, The Mauritanian, The Fallout, The Last Letter from Your Lover) as Eleanor talks a lot, and swims a lot. But she gets into her own at the climax. Ben Mendelsohn as Lammark could have sleepwalked in the role. Good casting. Excellent performances come from Ralph Ineson as Dean, and Rosemary Dunsmore as his mother, Mrs. Possey. Very good support comes from Jovan Adepo, Richard Zeman, Dusan Dukic, Jason Cavalier, Nick Walker and Michael Cram. Cinematography by Javier Juliá takes to some impossible angles, and then some more. Keeping the scissors with himself, Damián Szifron had edited the film himself. While it is largely well-edited, some of the establishing shots and the climax for sure should have been trimmed. Music by Carter Burwell is a plus

To Catch a Killer, does not break completely with killer movies, that would be like sawing off your hand. But the fact that it tries hard to find its idiom has to be commended.

The movie is brought to India by the PVR Group.

Rating: ** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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