A Kind of Murder full movie review - Kind of Noir, But Not Quite
Film noir. Pulp fiction. Low lights and dim shadows. Smoky bars that serve the finest rotgut and rooms that rent by the hour. The not so smart guys and dolls that occupy this underworld are people the good life never knew.
Their existence is one of unabashed desperation, seeking a way out to a life they never had or could play a part. Always one big score, one stroke of luck, one horse or roll of the dice away from trading the bad side of town for deliverance to a wistful world that remains just outside their plaintive grasps. For these tortured souls, a return to the big house is a welcome respite, death a transition to the solace they could never find. Pitfalls arrive in the form of a rival's murder they did not commit, a robbery by an old pal while they were asleep, but somehow, being a "usual suspect," they dissemble while innocent when the inevitable knock on the door arrives, which eventually leads to their sometimes undeserved tragic end.
Enter "A Kind of Murder," a not so pulpy attempt at the classic genre. The lighting is foreboding, the shadows disguise, the mood is set, but then the movie starts and we get something else. It is as if the makers of this film tried to make "The Blue Dahlia" with the wrong characters. Clara Stackhouse, played by Jessica Biel ("Hitchcock," "The Illusionist") represents the stereotypical bored, hysterical, boozed and suicidal sixties housewife, dressed in suburban splendor in her taffeta hoop skirts, pearls and white gloves. At no point does she evoke the noir broad, the tough Barbara Stanwick-type chick who "don't take no guff off nobody." We're supposed to believe that she is the most successful real estate agent in her region, but the only indication we have that she has a career is a couple of lines from her boss. Her manic-depressive character would have been more believable if they had made her Madmen's iconic Betty Draper, pushing a vacuum while knocking back highballs.
Patrick Wilson ("Fargo," "The Watchmen") is wasted in this poor man's B- movie role as Walter Stackhouse, a pathological liar on a strange guilt trip because he imagined life without Clara. He's got everything, successful architectural practice, sprawling suburban home, cool car and beautiful wife reminiscent of Talking Head's "Once in a Lifetime," but he's trapped playing the role of the desperate two-time loser with nothing at stake. The power couple we are presented ("he builds 'em, she sells 'em") simply doesn't fit. Wilson is forced to channel his best Alan Ladd while making every inexplicable mistake a murder suspect can muster, digging his own grave with every word he utters. You want to shout "Stop talking!" at the screen. He should have taken his partner's advice and taken some time off. We'll have to wait for Wilson to land a leading role he can sink his teeth into.
The hard-boiled detective, played by Vincent Kartheiser (Peter Campbell- "Madmen") is straight out of a bad B-movie playbook. As pathetic as the perps he pursues, he concocts one crazy theory after another, committed to solving crimes with his gut rather than seek actual evidence. Stackhouse's mindboggling series of lies does nothing but encourage Kartheiser's unwavering, emotionally driven methods. Unfortunately, once the investigation picks up speed the story becomes frustratingly convoluted and remains so. His flights of fancy make it impossible to discern what he's trying to accomplish. Mark McPherson ("Laura"), a stellar noir detective, would have slapped him silly.
The movie ends on a fitful note. Kimmel (Eddie Marsan ?"Ray Donovan," "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"), a psychopath who actually did commit murder, panics after one of Kartheiser's nonsensical threats, later finding his solace via death by bullets in a dark basement. Just what one would expect if the movie was about him. The problem is Kimmel's story is unrelated to Stackhouse's problems outside of convenient logistics, and provides no resolution to the principal story. We leave not knowing whether Kartheiser continued investigating Stackhouse or simply gave up. One could conjure the image of a conversation between him and his police chief a la "Burn After Reading," where they decide Stackhouse is simply too stupid to have murdered his wife. The line, "If we convicted husbands for wishing their wives dead, there would not be enough prisons to hold them" comes to mind. In the end, "A Kind of Murder" is kind of noir, but misses the mark.