Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been the go-to for complex, urbane thrillers since Alfred Hitchcock made the first Strangers on a Train adaptation in 1951. A Kind of Murder is the latest in the Highsmith subgenre – it’s based on the novel The Blunderer from 1954, and directed by Andy Goddard from a screenplay by Susan Boyd.
The film tells the story of Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson), a successful architect living in the suburbs of New York City with his real-estate agent wife Clara (Jessica Biel). But, as with all Highsmith’s works, things are not well in the paradise of American suburbia. Clara is a neurotic with overtones of paranoia and her unwillingness to seek help has set her husband on edge and her marriage on the rocks.
Then comes the news of a murder of a woman at a roadside café near Saratoga Springs, with the husband Kimmel (Eddie Marsan) as the prime suspect. The murder gradually obsesses Walter, as he dreams of committing the same crime to rid himself of his clinging, paranoid wife. When Clara dies in suspiciously similar circumstances, Walter finds himself at the center of a police investigation led by the brutish Detective Corby (Vincent Kartheiser), also investigating the Kimmel murder.
Most Highsmith plots contain a high grade of suspicion and confused motives, and the same is true here – Walter has every reason to wish his wife dead, yet shrinks at the idea of actually killing her. His guilt is not in deed but in thought and his obsession with the Kimmel murder becomes an outlet for his dreams of escape.
The quiet but hostile Kimmel is juxtaposed with the charming, wealthy Walter. As with films like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, a hostile sympathy forms between the two characters as they become near-doppelgangers, dependent on and obsessed by one another, at times literally balancing out the screen in each other’s presence. Meanwhile, Detective Corby forms a go-between between the two men, bringing his own obsession with their guilt into the mix.
A Kind of Murder deals with class and gender relations at a turning point in American culture, revealing the seething discontent lying beneath that façade of prosperity. But that in itself would not make this film successful – is there any story about suburban American that doesn’t involve seething discontent? Rather, the complexity of the characters and the conflict between their desires and what they will actually do to achieve them is the film’s greatest strength.
Eddie Marsan and Patrick Wilson both turn in excellent work here – Marsan in particular gives a disarmingly intriguing performance as Kimmel, a man boiling over with hate, yet keeping it under iron control. Walter, on the other hand, slowly fragments as his lies and subterfuge pile up, making himself look increasingly guilty even while protesting his innocence.
Although set in 1960, A Kind of Murder feels more like a 2016 facsimile of the 1960s than a believable foray into the time period. It is far too contemporary in places to quite ring true – and perhaps Goddard and Boyd were more interested in what the story has to say about our own time than they were in creating a believable world. Nevertheless, it makes for a less interesting thriller than A Kind of Murder needs to be – for all the hostility of the characters, a palpable sense of danger comes and goes far too often to sustain tension.
Some of this has to do with the casting of Biel, whose limitations make her hard to accept as an upper-middle class woman in the 1960s. Worst of all, however, is Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett), the Village chanteuse whose relationship with Walter precipitates some of the violence. Bennett is entirely at sea in the role – she’s not even remotely believable as a free-spirited beatnik who inspires Walter to seriously consider leaving his wife. While Ellie is meant to provide at least some motivation and conflict, she’s neither an interesting character nor a particularly believable one, and once she has served her purpose to the plot, she all but vanishes.
If A Kind of Murder doesn’t entirely follow through on its promise, neither does it fail altogether. There’s too much that’s intriguing in this film to ignore it, and although the third act shows signs of strain, the first two acts more than justify the film’s existence.
An Initially intriguing thriller, A Kind of Murder winds up only being kind of interesting.