The late mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith has long been a Hollywood favorite. Her novels became such cinema classics as “Strangers on a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (and French film “Purple Noon”), “The Two Faces of January” and “Carol.”
She wrote smart thrillers with a shiny veneer and troubling (for her era) sexual subtexts, and that has drawn filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Anthony Minghella to Todd Haynes to, now, Andy Goddard.
The “Downton Abbey” vet takes a shot at Highsmith’s “A Kind of Murder,” and misses — cleanly, bloodlessly and without any mess.
It’s a moderately intricate mystery along the lines of “Strangers on a Train,” (“Once You Meet a Stranger” is the source novel’s title).
A woman has died at a bus stop/roadhouse in upstate New York. Her bookseller husband (Eddie Marsan) is the sole suspect, a man dogged by Det. Corby (Vincent Kartheiser of “Mad Men”). But as the newspapers remind us, he’s got no case. Yet.
And this intrigues rich, successful architect Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson). He’s unhappily married to a suspicious, disturbed and icy beauty — Clare — played by Jessica Biel. Their fights have a 1960 film formality to them.
“I guess we had a one good year. Is that it? One good year?”
“For God’s sake, Clare. Don’t be so melodramatic.”
Simple divorce should suffice. But that might be costly, and the Stackhouses have just moved into a designer showcase of Walter’s design. Clare has a hint of the “suicidal” about her.
So our interest is piqued when Walter starts driving his Corvette convertible to the provinces to look in on this bookseller Kimmel, see what makes him tick, figure out his crime.
Sure, Walter’s a part-time crime novelist and this could just be “research.” But we suspect otherwise. And when Clare doesn’t survive one of her frequent bus rides to visit her ailing mother out of town, the detective suspects otherwise, too.
There’s something very right about Kartheiser’s cop blurting out, “I want you to know that nobody’s smart than me.” Dramatically? That line’s foreshadowing could not be more obvious.
The versatile character actor Marsan has played just enough villains for his Kimmel casting to feel a tad on the nose. Beetle-brow tucked behind glasses, there’s not much mystery to him. We simply wonder how dangerous he truly is, and if Stackhouse is in danger or his wife was merely another Kimmel victim.
Wilson does that “looks guilty” thing as well as any leading man in the movies. But there are all these guilty elements in Stackhouse’s character. Yes, he’s taking up with a sultry younger jazz singer (Haley Bennett). He keeps lying to the police about his whereabouts, his contacts and possible motives. These add up to a character who can’t be guilty. It just seems too obvious, right?
Biel, a limited actress who has been good on occasion, is uninteresting in the extreme here, playing a melodramatic cliche.
“A Kind of Murder” botches the mystery, even as it recreates a lush version of the late ’50s/early ’60s that Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,””Carol”) would envy.
But as its quickly stumbles through its crimes and clues, “A Kind of Murder” leaves you with the uneasy feeling that a promising mystery has simply been designed to death.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel, Haley Bennett, Eddie Marsan, Vincent Kartheiser
Credits:Directed by Andy Goddard, script by Susan Boyd, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:35