A Kind of Murder (Andy Goddard, 2016)
The late, great American writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) – best known for books like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley – was a virtuoso in the art of psychological unease. Her best works went far beyond conventional murder mysteries, becoming disturbing profiles of the psychopaths among us. Even The Price of Salt – her second novel, adapted last year, by film director Todd Haynes, as Carol – was more than merely a lesbian love story (certainly a bold enough literary statement for 1952, when it was first published), occupying, in its intense focus on desire and its consequences, similar territory to Highsmith’s thrillers about killers. She was sui generis, a brilliant chronicler of the anomie of the disaffected denizens of our modern world.
Now comes A Kind of Murder, from first-time screenwriter Susan Boyd and veteran television director Andy Goddard (Downton Abbey), whose debut feature film, Set Fire to the Stars, came out in 2014. It is an adaptation of Highsmith’s 1954 novel The Blunderer. Starring Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring 2), Eddie Marsan (The World’s End), Jessica Biel (Hitchcock), Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), the movie features fine performances, high production value, and a production design that plunges us effectively both into the late ’50s era of the story and the murky world of the characters’ fragile psyches.
Wilson plays Walter Stackhouse, a successful New York architect who moonlights as a writer of murder-mystery stories and becomes obsessed with the recent killing of a Newark woman that is splashed all over the news. Unhappy in his own marriage, to Clara (Biel), a depressive, he fantasizes about the death of his wife and pays a visit to the husband of the murder victim (Marsan), who is the prime suspect, at least in the eyes of Detective Corby (Kartheiser), a man not wont to let evidence (or the lack thereof) get in the way of a hunch. That visit eventually turns out to be ill-advised, especially once Walter is suspected of carrying on a torrid affair with Ellie (Bennett), a seductive young torch singer who likes married men. In typical Highsmith fashion, the motivations of all players are never quite clear – even to themselves – until the final act.
Overall, this is a solid bit of filmmaking where the various cinematic cards are handled with deft sleight of hand. It’s far from perfect, however, and the plot is sometimes too dense and the behind-the-scenes actions too Byzantine to entirely satisfy. Goddard and Boyd are frequently willing to resort to ellipsis in the name of mystery which, when the missing information is eventually revealed, feels like a cheap trick. But flaws aside, A Kind of Murder rewards the viewer with the perverted joys of witnessing the all-too-human tendency towards depraved self-interest. As such, it’s a fitting tribute to Highsmith, and well worth watching.