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I’ve always been drawn to a noir-ish kind of film, one layered with as much attention to the details of its style as to the complexities of its characters. Obvious modern contenders, such as Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner top the list, but old standards like 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1974’s Chinatown are classics that are still supremely fun to watch. With A Kind Of Murder, an atmospheric thriller, it’s all style, despite some good performances, a film that exhausts all it can on the look but not enough on the potential it leaves sitting on the shelf.
In 1960s New York City suburbia, we meet Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) a wealthy and successful architect, desperately trying to keep up a façade of happiness with his depressive, near-suicidal, and overly-paranoid wife, Clara (Jessica Biel). Sexually repressed and longing for inspiration, he meets the lovely Ellie Bryce (Haley Bennett) at a dinner party, a free-spirited jazz singer who sparks dangerous ideas within Walter that have serious consequences.
Meanwhile, there’s a killer on the streets. The murder of a woman at a roadside café near Saratoga Springs, north of the city, leads detectives to think it was committed by her husband Kimmel (Eddie Marsan), an iniquitous-looking fellow that stumps investigators, including determined Detective Corby (Vincent Kartheiser). It becomes a newspaper staple story and Walter finds himself absorbed into the details, retreating to his basement den to pore over the clippings and write his own theories in the form of pulp-fiction novella ideas. Then another, very important body surfaces, and suspicions begins shift, putting Walter on the top of the list.
Directed by Andy Goddard, and based on the 1954 novel, The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, A Kind Of Murder spills out like a puzzle box tossed on the floor, except it is missing all the edges and blue sky pieces, making it little effort to see the picture. Scenes play out in synchronous, machine-like order, resolutely sticking only to the necessities of the dialogue, offering little nuance in the characters as it steams towards its conclusion. That’s not to say there aren’t some palpable themes at play, and Goddard does well in painting some nice contrasts, especially between the seething, tight-lidded Kimmel and the unravelling weak-willed Stackhouse, reflections of the same man as it were on opposite ends of a prism.
Indeed, it’s these two characters that hold the most interest, with that particularly true of Walter, who is a crumbling sort and teeters precariously on the plot’s attempts to make a statement on the era’s gender defining shifts in sexual freedom. Clara and Ellie are the other opposites, one near psychotically repressed and the other almost explosively suggestive. All of this seeps deliciously into the experience, but is ever-pressed to the peripheral as the film is far more focused on atmosphere and crafting a kind of pseudo-60s flare that ultimately strip it of its potential power.
Wilson comes off best, form-fitted to the role, getting the look and tone just right. So too is Marsan, who is given limited screen time but adds a darkness that harkens back to some of the shadowy villainous antagonists of the old black & white thrillers of the 50s. But others come up just short, with Kartheiser’s detective perhaps accurate but singed by cliché. Biel is unfortunately cast in a singular manner, her character given no opportunity to develop or have any weight. Clara is simply a broken woman, and as such, does nothing but either bark at her husband to leave her alone or swear never to leave her. Bennett, who is a fast-rising star, is affecting to watch, but like this year’s Girl On A Train, is caught in screenplay that doesn’t utilize her properly.
To be sure, much praise must be given to the production, with designers Pete Zumba and Jim Warren really pulling out all the stops. Pay attention to that wonderfully placed spiral stairwell at the heart of Walter’s modern home that leads to his den of secrets, in more ways than one. But it’s not just that, everything looks sharp, slightly and rightfully, exaggerated to heighten the look. Goddard keeps us fascinated in the setting, and he stages moments well with lighting and shadows, it’s just too bad the tonal shifts couldn’t keep the story itself as compelling.
A Kind Of Murder is a colorful ode to the genre and while there is a lot here that makes it worth a look, it lacks the punch we’ve come to expect in films that it tries to emulate. Think of 1997’s L.A. Confidential, one that feels especially connected to this. A solid little thriller, it works hard to be what it is but its lost potential keeps this a disappointment.
Director: Andy Goddard
Writers: Susan Boyd (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel, Haley Bennett
Genre: Thriller, Noir