Patrick Wilson just can’t catch a break. No matter how hard he tries, he has yet to break through into credible leading man territory. He’s been wading in the shallow ends of roles landing somewhere between genre film and B movie territory. But while he isn’t hugely popular, his films still gross a respectable amount of money (and considering their usually low budgets, his starring films always have a huge return on investment) so I’ve always respected the talent he must have waiting to reveal.
I had hoped that A Kind of Murder would be Wilson’s time to shine, but there’s evidence here that he may not be ready to tackle something concrete when he’s left to bear the weight of the entire project. Especially when the film can’t seem to find a footing of its own.
A Kind of Murder
Director: Andy Goddard
Release Date: April 17, 2016 (limited)
Based on The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, A Kind of Murder follows Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson), an architect who has everything you’d expect from someone living the high life in the 60s: his short mystery writing hobby has landed him in magazines, a beautiful wife Clara (Jessica Biel), a fancy home, money, and as many cigarettes as he could smoke. But almost instantly, the veneer of his life starts to unravel. His wife has mental health issues, their marriage is falling apart, he begins sleeping with the mysterious singer Ellie (Haley Bennett), and his tendency to follow murder stories in the paper catches up with him. When his wife suddenly dies, and the scene of her murder looks eerily close to the murder of the local bookshop owner Kimill (Eddie Marsan)’s wife, Stackhouse has to clear his name and move on with his life.
Murder does everything in its power to define its 60s setting and tone. Paying respect to its pulp-mystery origins, there is a heavy use of shadow and angular shots. Bouts of silence coupled with deep reds help sink you into the film’s deep tone. Sets are well lit enough to see what’s going on, while still being blacked out enough to leave you a little bit confused. Unfortunately, the score doesn’t help or detract from the film so Murder is left with only its visuals to accomplish its goals. It’s just a shame that once everyone starts talking, everything else falls apart. It’s almost impossible to keep a consistent tone when some actor’s performances are anachronistic and some are pulpy to a fault.
As examples of both extremes, Jessica Biel’s Clara and Lucas Bentley’s Detective Jackson are overwritten and overacted. Each time they’re on screen. the energy from the scene is completely drained. Biel seems to be trying her best, but she can’t get a grip on Clara’s character. It doesn’t help that the script doesn’t seem to know what’s wrong with Clara either. There’s some sort of hint at a mental health issue, and while that’s a strong characterization for a pulp mystery story (but out of place and time, for sure), we’re stuck seeing it through Stackhouse’s misogynystic POV. He’s a terrible person, and it’s reflected in how the story’s told. We never quite get the full mystery or figure out why characters make certain decisions because we’re stuck watching Stackhouse make his own baffling choices. For one, he’s constantly lying to everyone. Namely, Bentley’s terrible Detective whos’ characterization is so rooted in the setting, he’s sticks out like a cartoon.
The most important thing for a mystery is not its setting or tone, it’s the integrity of the mystery itself. Whether you’re focusing on a crime or the mystery of a character’s personality, there needs to be a solid foundation for everything else to succeed. Unfortunately, Murder never quite figures out what kind of story it wants to tell. There’s a secondary plot revolving Kimill and the murder of his wife, but Eddie Marsan doesn’t add necessary layers to his performance to keep his story interesting. He’s consistently sinister throughout and when a plot point is revealed later on, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. He’s effectively taking the air of mystery out of the mystery. And when the performances don’t help, the holes in the story stick out that much more. We’re left without so much crucial information seemingly happening off screen so there’s no real way to connect and stick with the Murder.
At first it seemed like A Kind of Murder had all the pieces for success, but it gets so caught up in capturing the essence of its source material that it forgets to make everything else as engaging. A floundering mystery spawning waves upon waves of disconnect, its few good elements are completely snuffed by its poor organization.