‘The Postcard Killings’ Mails It In

by Warren Cantrell on March 13, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Author James Patterson’s no frills, no fat, all-narrative method of writing has produced dozens of entries on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which would lead one to believe that his work is more primed than any other for the big screen. The Postcard Killings is an adaptation of a novel Patterson cowrote with Swedish writer Liza Marklund, and its Silence of the Lambs meets Taken formula seems like the perfect platform for a taut, engaging thriller whose very existence is tailored for the big screen. And while the stripped-down nature of the story might have made it the perfect fit for airport bookstores, the plug and play nature of the “mystery” and the prosciutto-thin characters circling it dooms the film version from the jump.

When the audience meets NYPD cop Jacob Kanon (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), he’s in London to identify the body of his daughter and her new husband at the morgue. Kanon makes it clear to the authorities that he isn’t just there to bring his girl’s body home, but to track down the serial killer that’s responsible for a handful of similar murders around Europe. Each slaying follows a pattern: a young couple goes missing, a seemingly random journalist gets a postcard from the killer with a cryptic message, then the bodies of new victims are found staged with their blood drained and body parts from other killings sewn to them.

Although he’s told repeatedly by the cops to stand aside and let the investigations play out, Jacob is determined to crack the case before the next set of victims are targeted. Along the way Jacob partners with a journalist, Dessie (Cush Jumbo), who has received the newest postcard, and together the two piece together clues to cobble together a picture of the killer and where they might strike next. There are other characters as well, including two young American travelers and another pair of Dutch artists who they meet on a train, yet to say anything else about the plot might spoil certain elements of the film’s multiple reveals.

And while the central mystery and its set-up is indeed sound, how this all plays out and the way the characters function within it reeks of corner-cutting and lazy writing. Jacob doesn’t have anything resembling a defining character trait outside of his function in the script, which is a damn-the-torpedoes style of investigating that is largely chalked up to his American-ness. Lacking patience or any respect for the legal system in the various countries he visits, Jacob keeps plowing ahead, ostensibly to stop another murder, but really, so he can exact his vengeance.

Besides the desperately little time given to establish anything resembling a character arc for Jacob, there’s also nothing to explain why he’d risk his career and/or his life to track down this serial killer. Jacob’s relationship with his daughter is never explored, and thus doesn’t serve as an engine for his actions, and as a cop he’d surely know how problematic his presence in the investigation would be for the local badges (not to mention the potential for the killer getting off because he tainted evidence or the inquiry). Director Danis Tanovic doesn’t linger on these concerns or the consistently clunky dialogue that dances around it, however, and instead pours all his energies into making sure this thing is shot well and keeps moving at a good clip (both are indeed the case).

Even so, if it was just bad dialogue and stock characters paired with an original premise or clever plot mechanics, The Postcard Killings might have been worth a watch, but the particulars of the story are just as ill-conceived as the rest of it. The movie opens with the killer draining the blood of two victims, which seems like a vital part of the methodology until this seemingly crucial aspect of the murders comes to nothing. Likewise, although the murders are staged using body parts from previous victims, how the killer managed to keep these appendages (or the blood) from rotting or raising an eyebrow at certain points in the movie is never considered. Indeed, once it is established who is committing these crimes, it seems impossible that they could have managed the feats the first act of the story sets up for them.

One gets the sense that Tanovic hoped that if he moved things along quickly enough, the audience would forget about the set-up that got them there: like a ladder with rungs that disappear after each step. It’s just a mess of a story paired with a group of actors who are either not capable or willing to sell the emotional weight of all this. Morgan might be using fancy stamps with a little added postage, but he’s still mailing it in through most of his scenes, mustering up all the enthusiasm of a ripe watermelon. Famke Janssen pops in and out of the movie a few times as Jacob’s estranged -ex, yet she alternates between frantic and calculating depending on what the scene calls for, and like most of the movie’s characters, acts as little more than a vehicle for desperately needed exposition.

Opening this week, The Postcard Killings is little more than a rote, paint by numbers serial killer thriller with stock elements most have seen before and staffed with characters that remain mostly anonymous throughout. The particulars of the mystery don’t always add up, and the people meant to lead the audience through to the finish line are hampered by a tragic mix of bad writing and half-assed acting. Although this critic can’t claim to know whether the book did any better (I’ve not read it), if the film adaptation is any indication, it should have stayed on the shelf.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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