The same elements tend to pop up in Patricia Highsmith’s fiction: betrayal, desire, a kind of uncanny psychic understanding that passes between characters, and the thin veneer that separates civilization from brutality. For decades, those elements have provided fodder for great Highsmith film adaptations, like Strangers on a Train (1951), The American Friend (1977), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Carol (2015).
But good source material does not guarantee a good movie, and A Kind of Murder, a new Highsmith adaptation directed by Andy Goddard from a screenplay by Susan Boyd, is not a good movie. Ostensibly a noir thriller about a man who may or may not have killed his wife, it plods along tediously, sometimes telegraphing its twists and sometimes burying them for no reason other than to manufacture tension. A story like this may be gripping on the page, but it needs to be translated, not just transplanted, to work onscreen.
A Kind of Murder starts as domestic drama and turns into noir
Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) lives in a beautiful house north of New York City with his wife Clara (Jessica Biel) who, it appears, is clinically depressed and paranoid, but refuses to see an analyst. Their marriage has gone from happy to sour in five years, and Walter is beginning to ponder a way out.
One day he reads a story in the newspaper about a man named Kimmel (Eddie Marsan) whose wife was found murdered at a restaurant often used as a stopover on buses headed upstate. Walter is convinced Kimmel killed his wife, and admires aloud to the bartender his ingenuity in pulling it off and not getting caught. He begins to fantasize about what it must be like to be rid of one’s wife — not intending, of course, to go through with it.
Walter and Clara throw a party, at which Walter meets Ellie (Haley Bennett), a singer living in Greenwich Village, who came with a friend. Clara watches him talk with Ellie and becomes obsessed with the idea that he is having a secret affair with her. Things keep getting worse, while Walter can’t stop thinking about Kimmel and his wife — he even shows up at Kimmel’s bookshop to see what he’s like.
Meanwhile, Detective Corby (Vincent Kartheiser, doing his best Ray Liotta impression) is hot on Kimmel’s trail, and when he catches wind of Walter — and then when Clara disappears — he gets interested in him, too. Meanwhile, Ellie may be a classic noir femme fatale, or she may just be a casual acquaintance. As the case progresses, it becomes a game of cats and mice.
A Kind of Murder misses all its opportunities to be interesting
One of Highsmith’s obsessions as a writer is what characters’ occupations tell us about them. Close-reading what Highsmith characters do professionally usually yields psychological insights that operate on almost a Freudian level. While Tom Ripley — who as a con artist is able to impersonate all kinds of occupations — may be the apex of this, a great example of how it works is in Carol, last year’s film adapted from Highsmith’s novella The Price of Salt.
In The Price of Salt, Therese (played by Rooney Mara in Carol) is a set designer, working in the Greenwich Village theater scene to design and create worlds in which stories can come to life. Her day job selling dolls at a department store acts as a foil for that occupation: Dolls embody a kind of theatricality, as objects with which little girls practice and construct dreams of motherhood and domestic life. It’s just those constructed desires that Carol is chafing against, which manifests in her relationship with Therese and other choices. (The Price of Salt is as much a book about motherhood and domesticity as it is about a forbidden relationship.)
In writing Carol, though, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy made a small change: Therese shifts from set designer to photographer. And that’s perfect: Carol is a film about the look of desire, about communicating with someone else — and interpreting their reality — through what we see. As a photographer, Therese is an intense observer of surfaces, but her relationship with Carol forces her into seeing past those surfaces. It’s an ideal way to shift the story into a visual medium like film.
A Kind of Murder taps briefly into this fixation with occupations: Walter is a successful architect with a contemporary visual style who also writes short stories, while Clara is a real estate agent who, her boss tells Walter, could buy or sell anything. So he designs and builds new places in which people can live their lives, opting for the most up-to-date aesthetic — he designed his own house, complete with sunken living room, and is a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright — but also peers into other people’s lives, keeping a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about murders and other crimes. Clara, on the other hand, buys and sells the houses on others’ behalf; she’s smart and skilled, but also passive and jealous of her husband’s insatiable curiosity.
The implications of this divide would have been fascinating to draw out. How much of Walter’s world is based in fantasy? What does Clara’s skill in convincing other people to buy the American dream say about her own? But instead of acknowledging or engaging with those questions, the screenplay leans heavily on Clara’s depression to construct her character; we can’t imagine why she and Walter were ever happy, and he seems like the passive one. (Wilson is also generally bland and one-note in the role, which adds to the banality.) And while Bennett is beguiling as Ellie, she becomes more opaque and unnecessary as the film goes on.
It all leads down a very bad path, but the way that story is told is infuriating: The characters’ motivations are either too obvious to seem interesting, or too buried to make any sense. Several times, the movie withholds key information in a totally unnecessary way that results not in an “aha!” moment, but in irritation: Well, if we’d known that, of course it would have made sense.
A movie that successfully withholds information almost always only works when the protagonist doesn’t know that information, either. But in A Kind of Murder, Walter mostly knows what’s happening throughout, while viewers are kept in the dark. Meanwhile, the detective stomps around paying visits, snooping, and yelling, but without much effect, robbing audiences of any sense of discovery or insight.
It’s possible that A Kind of Murder could have made a great film — but for that to work it would need a full reimagining as a movie, a visual medium that uses images together with plot to tell a story structured around a theme. In a film that is, ostensibly, about who is responsible when a crime occurs (see the title), it’s frustrating to see it going through the plot twist paces instead of tapping into its characters’ psyche. Frustrating, and not thrilling at all.
A Kind of Murder releases in theaters on December 16.