Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the Denzel Washington thriller The Little Things hitting theaters and HBO Max, we’re looking back at other movies about detectives hunting serial killers.
Last year, John Patrick Shanley’s romantic comedy Wild Mountain Thyme was greeted with understandable bafflement by the few people who managed to see it. But anyone who experienced the Shanley-penned oddity The January Man should have been well-prepared. If anything, his crack at a serial killer narrative is an even stranger beast than Wild Mountain Thyme, which at least has theatrical roots to explain its talky would-be lyricism and awkward leaps of whimsy. The January Man was written for the screen, and released in its namesake month to a mainstream, multiplex audience interested in watching cops try to catch a killer. Its lackadaisical, eccentric approach to the genre makes it seem almost visionary, working as a parody of movies not yet made.
There were movies about detectives on the trail of serial killers before January 1989, of course, but this film from Shanley and Irish director Pat O’Connor predates Silence Of The Lambs, Seven, and the killer-hunting oeuvre of Denzel Washington, among others. In place of Washington, Jodie Foster, or Morgan Freeman, it offers Kevin Kline as Nick Starkey, who brings what another cop describes as a “beatnik mentality” to the business of finding the killer who’s been preying on one Manhattan woman per month for the better part of a year. Even before the serial-killer subgenre crested in popularity, and despite Kline making this movie at a career peak (he would win an Oscar just a couple of months later), this was an odd match of actor and material—and the movie revels in it. Kline plays this cop-turned-firefighter-turned-cop more like a shambling private eye, infused with his usual slapstick grace and a New York accent that almost winks at its own wobbliness.
Starkey drops back into a hot-tempered law-enforcement atmosphere where Rod Steiger (as the mayor), Danny Aiello (as a police captain), and Harvey Keitel (as the police commissioner, also Starkey’s brother) simmer and boil over into shouting matches. True to Shanley’s Moonstruck style, the hollering intensity is more comic than grave—here in service of a funny, sometimes poetic defusing of cop-movie bluster. More radical is Shanley and O’Connor’s decision to keep the murderer’s point of view off-screen for the vast majority of the running time; despite the title billing, the bad guy often feels like an afterthought. Starkey describes his quarry as “very bright, in a useless sort of way” and barely does any investigating for the first 45 minutes or so, during which he acquires sidekicks played by future Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves castmates Alan Rickman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. When he does turn his full attention to the crimes, he treats the clues more like trivia rounds. The final confrontation is basically farce.
All of this cheerful malarkey does leave The January Man feeling a bit centerless. This isn’t the type of movie where the characters are so rich that their lives extend beyond the frame. Quite to the contrary: These people barely exist within the movie itself, where the very nature of their construction calls attention to Shanley’s nutty sensibilities and how ill-fitting they are within the lurid formulas of gritty cops and impossibly precise murderers. It’s hard to discern much of a point beyond that. But as with Wild Mountain Thyme, anyone who can roll with ostentatious, Irish American-flavored dialogue performed with bravado—with the bonus of genre deconstruction—should seek it out. This is a recommendation made for the what-the-hell spirit of browsing through what’s free on a particular streaming service during the desolation of a pandemic in, well, January.