“I didn’t do anything.”
Last year, Todd Haynes brought Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt to life with Carol, a gorgeous film that sharply recreated a snowy 1950s New York winter. This year, Andy Goddard adapts another Highsmith tale, The Blunderer, to the screen with A Kind of Murder. Like Carol before it, A Kind of Murder sets-up a snowy, beautiful-to-behold 1950s New York around a character-driven melodrama. But if you’re looking for a film of Carol’s caliber, you should lower your expectations.
Goddard’s film starts off strong. The filmmaker, working with cinematographer Chris Seager, knows how to stage stunning, stylish shots of snow whipping through the canyons of New York skyscrapers, or fix the camera on the icy East River as the Brooklyn Bridge looms ominously overhead. Before the narrative even begins we learn of the brutal murder of a woman at a bus stop. Her husband, a bookseller named Kimmel (Eddie Marsan), is the likely suspect — but he’s got an alibi: a kid from the neighborhood (Radek Lord) spotted Kimmel at the movies during the murder. Meanwhile, architect and amature mystery writer Walter Stackhouse (the ever-dependable Patrick Wilson) has marital problems of his own. His marriage to Clara (Jessica Biel) is rapidly deteriorating — due, in part, to Clara’s declining mental health. She refuses to seek help, and the couple more often than not end up in nasty arguments.
During a house party, Walter meets the fetching Ellie (Haley Bennett), a bohemian singer from the East Village. Ellie is everything Clara is not, and, most of all, she’s stable. Walter is clearly smitten with the young woman, yet doesn’t act on his feelings. But Clara catches on fast, and trouble follows. As A Kind of Murder unfolds, Walter and Kimmel cross paths, setting up a kind of Strangers on a Train-style mystery in the process. All the while, both men are being closely watched by the increasingly rude Detective Lawrence Corby (Vincent Kartheiser, adding a touch of Mad Men to the proceedings).
A Kind of Murder’s set-up is sound, and director Goddard directs the hell out of the film, elevating it above your standard indie-VOD-release-of-the-week. Helping matters is Wilson, who always brings a unique everyman-touch to the roles he plays. But the film begins to sag after its first half-hour, and we begin to feel as if we’re going in circles. There’s not enough story here to prop-up a feature-length film, so Susan Boyd’s script keeps going over the same ground again and again. Not helping matters is the fact that it’s never clear just which of these characters we’re supposed to relate to. There’s nothing wrong with making a film comprised entirely of negative, unlikable characters, but if you’re going to go that route you need to at least make us understand who these people are. Instead, everyone in A Kind of Murder comes off as borderline sociopaths. Ellie is the only member of the group who seems half-human, but the film doesn’t spend enough time with her to remedy things.
A Kind of Murder is handsomely mounted and well-acted enough that’s easy to get caught-up in. It’s clear that Goddard, who works primarily in TV, including Daredevil, Luke Cage and the upcoming Iron Fist, has a sharp directorial eye. Given an equally sharp screenplay, he’ll likely do something great. A Kind of Murder isn’t that, though. It’s just kind of okay.