Hitchcock-ian is a common term these days. It’s meant to suggest a specific tone, one of dark psychology and shocking images. It’s used with reference to Alfred Hitchcock, the famed director of classics like Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. A Kind of Murder was described as Hitchcock-ian by the Tribeca Film Festival, and the description mostly fits, even if it doesn’t mean that the movie behind the term is a perfect one.
A Kind of Murder follows Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson), an architect and murder mystery scribe who’s marriage is in shambles. Clara (Jessica Biel), is Walter’s unstable wife, prone to fits of jealousy and irrational behavior. The couple bickers frequently, but this dynamic is part of what hurts A Kind of Murder.
The pair is never believable, and none of it ever quite gels. It all feels a little too forced, as if screenwriter Susan Boyd was attempting to make them sound old-fashioned and, in the process, turned them into caricatures. The early scenes between the two are strained to the max, and it’s something of a welcome relief when Clara turns up dead.
Walter, who is himself fascinated with true crime as inspiration for his stories, becomes a suspect in the disappearance of his wife, who died in a similar manner to another women who was found in the same location as Clara several weeks earlier. Detective Lawrence Corby (Vincent Kartheiser) immediately hops on both cases, and tries to prove that the husbands of both women are guilty.
As the plot dovetails from there, the film plays itself out like a fairly conventional thriller, albeit one with style in abundance. The best thing about A Kind of Murder is its look, one that really does recall Hitchcock. Painted in shadow as much as in light, the direction and cinematography of the film are gorgeous, and both recall the best noir films of days gone by. The pacing, too, seems to recall these thrillers.
Unfortunately, the plotting feels more like a parody of the genre than an ode to it. This does come with one notable caveat. A clever ending can do immense work to course correct a story. A Kind of Murder propels itself toward an ending on shaky ground, and its final moments are its most thrilling.
For the entirety of its run time, this is a film that desperately wants to be about something. Walter didn’t murder his wife. He knows this, and so does the audience, but we also know that he considered it. This idea of culpability, of whether the act itself is what’s wrong or whether the thought is enough to condemn a person, runs all through A Kind of Murder, and never more than at its conclusion.
A Kind of Murder is a messy experience. Moment to moment it can either be completely engrossing or completely fall apart. It’s stylistic, and its themes, while indelicately weaved, are undoubtedly interesting ones. A Kind of Murder is Hitchcock-ian, sure, but only in fits and starts. It’s compelling enough, the kind of film that feels indebted to the man without ever really bringing his spirit back to us.