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Reviews in Retrospect: A Kind of Murder

In Andy Goddard’s 2016 adaptation, the precarious line between fantasy and reality is explored within a murky landscape of moral ambiguity in small-town Texas.

A kind of murder film still

Andy Goddard’s 2016 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1954 novel The Blunderer, one of her most sophisticated narratives, is a notable cinematic tribute to her abiding themes. Less ostentatious in terms of production than other adaptations of her novels, it arguably gets closer to the writer’s intentions.

Highsmith’s recurrent narrative of two men’s lives entangled (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley) is manifest in the relationship between Melchior Kimmel (Eddie Marsan) and Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson), and one of the reasons this film works so well is perfect casting and superb acting from both leads.

Both men are in unhappy marriages. Walter’s marriage to Clara (Jessica Biel), a beautiful, cold neurotic, is foregrounded in the plot, whilst Kimmel’s marriage to Helen stays in the shadows.

Stackhouse, a successful architect and would-be writer, keeps newspaper cuttings to give him ideas for stories and one of them leads him to Kimmel’s antiquarian book store. He is fascinated by the character of a man who might be capable of killing his wife; his own discordant marriage sometimes makes him wish his wife was dead. How this will play out is less important than an exploration of the nature of guilt critical to both novel and film.

As ever with Highsmith, issues of status are present, particularly through Clara and Kimmel, the latter having an intellectual snobbery that Highsmith neither approves of nor judges.

Initially her publishers considered her depiction of Detective Lawrence Corby (played here by Vincent Kartheiser) to be too harsh, although Highsmith’s research at local police stations justified her treatment of this character. Kartheiser is convincing as a man committed to securing a conviction regardless of the truth, unafraid to use violence to achieve this end. His moral code is no more to be applauded than Kimmel’s or Stackhouse’s.

A Kind of Murder is pervaded by a sense of uncertainty, claustrophobia and menace reflected in interiors atmospherically lit by multi award-winning cinematographer Chris Seager.

Kimmel’s telling words to Stackhouse – “Proof is not the key thing - it’s doubt; it’s everything” – resonate in an amoral world where conviction is immaterial. In Highsmith’s shadowy domain, where innocence is obscured, we are all suspects. Everyone – on a profound, universal level – is guilty.

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