A Kind of Murder (2015)
This adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1954 novel The Blunderer is a variation on her habitual themes of murder, shifts of guilt and identity between male doppelgangers, seething repression, and dogged detection. All the way back to Strangers on a Train and the early Ripley adaptations, filmmakers have found her world enormously fascinating, even though Alfred Hitchcock and Rene Clement change her ruthless endings and Wim Wenders slaps a cowboy hat on her preppie series sociopath. Lately – with The Talented Mr Ripley and Carol – the cinema Highsmith has been also marked by a fondly nostalgic evocation of the 1950s and ‘60s along with a stress on gay subtext (or, in Carol, text). Director Andy Goddard, veteran of a lot of UK TV (Torchwood, Wire in the Blood, etc), and screenwriter Susan Boyd do stress the period but let the homoeroticism fade …even if Patrick Wilson’s extra-thick roll-neck pullover and Jessica Biel’s ultra-starched skirts verge on camp and there’s a veil of suspicion over bookseller Eddie Marsan’s relationship with the teenage assistant he supplies with magazines in brown paper wrappers.
Set in winter, with specks of snow vanishing on soft hats and coats, it does sometimes pull back to admire the detail – though the fact that the protagonist is an architect who has designed his own house (‘very adult,’ comments an invading cop) gives his appealingly sunken den and the sterile upstairs living room some thematic excuse. A few tiny details feel wrong – would a Greenwich Village chanteuse (Haley Bennett) in 1960 have a Lawrence Welk LP on prominent display? Even if she liked such a famously square performer, she’d want to hide it from her hipper friends. It opens with Marty Kimmel (Marsan) establishing an alibi at a cinema screening Butterfield 8, then has architect Walter Stackhouse (Wilson) – who has a sideline writing pulp crime stories – tearing an article out of the paper about the bludgeoning death of Kimmel’s wife at a rest-stop along a green line bus route. Walter has his own marriage woes – wife Clara (Biel) is a perfect hostess and successful real estate agent when they’re in company, but a frigid, paranoid neurotic when they’re alone together. She instantly suspects Walter is having an affair with singer Ellie (Haley Bennett) – and may even drive him to act out her fantasies – and is prone to suicide attempts. When she turns up dead under a bridge near the diner Mrs Kimmel vanished from, all sorts of possibilities are raised – have the husbands done a Strangers on a Train, or is one the killer of both women, and if so which? Detective Corby (Vincent Kartheiser, babyfaced but brutal) suspects both men, and keeps coming back into their lives with more questions (and more thuggish tactics) – and, just as Clara drove Walter to Ellie, the murders seem to drive him to fascination with Kimmel, who seems to be the sort of sourly homicidal little man Peter Lorre or Raymond Burr would have had a field day with (Marsan is splendidly creepy).
As often in Highsmith films – Carol excepted – the women are on the sidelines, and all the intrigue is between men albeit with murder usually replacing sexual activity. Biel doesn’t stay around long, but gives a good account of herself as a damaged, spiteful harridan – the sort of wife often murdered in Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and Columbo mysteries. Mostly, the film is a character study for Wilson – and its his repressed, perhaps unacted-on dark impulses which power the plot (he’s the blunderer of Highsmith’s title). Audiences may have different interpretations of precisely what Walter is guilty of, but Wilson inhabits the role with unsettling conviction – having come up with two classic thrillers in which psychos fixate on normal guys, this seems to have been Highsmith’s mirror image take on the plot as a well-heeled, successful man becomes obsessed with the seedy creep who has almost certainly done a deed he might not (yet) have the stones for. Wilson is one of those mid-list actors who have a surprisingly solid track record – my guess is that Patrick Wilson films have been more profitable than Brad Pitt movies for the last five years or so – and this is among his best work (I liked him a lot in the underrated Space Station 76 too), though it has slid out to DVD and streaming rather than getting a theatrical showing.