“To Catch a Killer” Takes a Humanistic Approach to the Procedural

For the past few decades, police procedurals have dominated the television airwaves, from the seemingly endless iterations of Law & Order, Criminal Minds, and C.S.I. to location-based sagas of first responders. This proliferation has also coincided with unprecedented interest in true crime documentaries and round the clock news. It seems that wherever we look, we’re bombarded with stories of violent criminals and the people who dedicate their lives to catching them. Damián Szifron brings this reality-based genre to the big screen with To Catch a Killer, an updated version of the procedural thriller that attempts to tackle themes of crime and policing through a progressive lens. Though the narrative sometimes lags under the weight of its message, the film is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that doesn’t shy away from the more problematic elements of the sub genre. 

Patrolling the streets on New Years Eve, Baltimore beat cop Eleanor Falco (Shailene Woodley) rushes to the scene of a mass shooting in which a sniper has used the midnight fireworks display as cover to murder 29 strangers from the window of a highrise apartment building. Having impressed FBI Profiler Geoffrey Lammark (Ben Mendelsohn) with her read on the shooter’s motive, she joins an elite team of investigators tasked with hunting down the murderer before he can kill again. Eleanor’s unique blend of intuition and mental illness causes her to push back against a system that wants little more than easy answers and convenient suspects. As the stranger continues to terrorize the city, Lammark and his team work around the clock to understand the unknown suspect and prevent him from taking more lives. 

Woodley anchors the cast as the troubled Eleanor, battling both a highly skilled killer and her past trauma. It’s an archetype we’ve seen many times before, most notably in Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Clarice Starling, but Woodley finds depth in the subdued role. Mendelsohn turns in a charismatic performance and adds life to the dark story though he’s often hamstrung by a somewhat clumsy script. We don’t get much time with the haunting Ralph Ineson, but he manages to find the perfect emotional tone for the film’s most complex role. Jovan Adepo is entirely underused as fellow investigator Mackenzie. Often tasked with advancing the plot, the handsome actor steals every scene he appears in and easily rises above the sea of anonymous supporting characters. A quick text message from his sister provides one of the few moments of joy in the entire film, a subtle indicator of the story’s oppressive nature. 

Recent years have seen procedurals accused of “copaganda,” painting officers as selfless heroes dedicated to serving the public and obfuscating the very real epidemic of police misconduct. To Catch a Killer also falls under this category, though Szifron does make an effort to address the issue. Lammark and his team operate on the outside of the system and frequently discuss problematic elements of the job. However, the corrupt cops and politicians they battle feel more like caricatures of crooked cops than actual human beings. By allowing Elanor to simultaneously exist inside and outside the system, Szifron has his cake and eats it too, exempting the audience from any uncomfortable moral decisions.  

To Catch a Killer has a distinct “ripped from the headlines” feel with its authentic depiction of current mass casualties and references to actual crimes. One character compares the opening massacre to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting and security footage of the second attack feels like watching an active shooting unfold on cable news. Set in Baltimore, the opening act serves as a frightening reminder of the D.C. Sniper attacks of 2002. Characters openly discuss the pandemic and a thinly-veiled facsimile of Fox News gooses its ratings while compounding the problem. The story feels depressingly familiar and Szifron effectively indicts a system that’s been twisted and bent so many times that it’s lost all meaning. 

Excellent effects and a dedication to empathy set this film apart from the countless episodes of procedural TV. Lammark and Eleanor both criticize the system and make excellent points about creating change from within. Mental health, a frequently touted scapegoat for gun violence, is taken seriously but not demonized. Szifron stops just shy of endorsing the actions of the killer. Both he and Eleanor are allowed to exist with mental illnesses while maintaining overall control over their choices. The only sour moment occurs as a spiraling Eleanor opens then immediately closes a comically staged drug drawer decked out with a veritable cornucopia of substances and paraphernalia. 

On the surface, To Catch a Killer may feel like the kind of one-hour serial that plays endlessly on basic cable, but Szifron has intentionally modernized a well-worn format to reflect our current reality. The conclusion feels both familiar and frustrating: the ending we deserve rather than the one we desire. The overall message feels a bit too unwieldy and the film serves as a contribution to an ongoing discussion with no definitive answers. Rather than proving a succinct point, To Catch a Killer simply shows that in a system built on violence, no one ever truly comes out on top.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.