Serial Killer 1 | Frédéric Tellier | France | 2014 | 120 minutes
Jake Smith sees in Serial Killer 1 a solid crime drama that is focused far more on the crime than the drama.
For the past several years, the Wisconsin Film Festival has brought a string of European historical crime pictures that I have found quite enjoyable (e.g. Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy and, in particular, last year’s The Connection). This year, Serial Killer 1 joins the lineup.
Based on actual events, SK1 takes place in the 1990s and early 2000s, and is the story of a team of Parisian detectives led by Frank “Charlie” Magne (Raphaël Personnaz) who are out to catch a serial killer who is assaulting and murdering women throughout the city. The film takes us through the many years it took to catch SK1 (so nicknamed after the label for the DNA sample that aided in the investigation). At different points throughout the film, the story also jumps ahead in time to the trial of the man police arrested for those heinous crimes.
If you are a fan of crime films, as I am, this one is definitely in your cinematic wheelhouse. While not necessarily a great film, it is certainly a good one. Many of the genre trappings you would expect are here, right down to some good hard-boiled lines (“To become a good detective, you start by shoveling shit.”) The performances are effective, particularly the very cool performance of Personnaz as Charlie (pictured here to the left of the two other men), who seems to be, in physique and manner, a combination of Alain Delon and Christian Bale. As is common in policiers from the 1970s on, the film manages to turn boring beige and drab olive into a noir color palette, especially within the matchbox confines of the squad’s office. Most importantly, there are a select few films that truly capture the doggedness of a full-scale police investigation; SK1 indisputably joins their ranks.
With the split between a pavement-pounding investigation and the courtroom milieu, it would be easy to make a Law & Order comparison here, but the film is far better than that sort of standard fare. And yet while it’s also fair to say that the film has received comparisons to Zodiac, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it’s earned those comparisons. Zodiac handles the emotional lives of the characters in far richer ways than this film, better showing the impacts of its characters’ doggedness to their personal lives. SK1 keeps the viewer at a constantly noticeable distance. I found myself wanting to know more about these characters, even if those additions sacrificed pieces of the plot. True, filmmakers can and do sometimes take that personal side too far, veering into the melodramatic, but a little more of the personal would have enhanced the professional here. The time jumps didn’t work as well for me either, if only because they are unevenly deployed throughout the film. To my mind, it would have worked better had there been either more time jumps or far less; as it stands, the film stands here on an uneasy middle ground.
Ultimately, though, these are personal quibbles that shouldn’t keep you from seeing this film. SK1 should supply a solid fix for chronic purveyors of crime cinema. It is always interesting, if not always perhaps compelling. That said, people too often overlook a well-executed genre film for the boxes it doesn’t check. It might not have checked all of mine, but believe me, SK1 is still a film well worth your time.