Jack Verdon (Ray Liotta) is a homicide detective in Washington, called to a murder scene that looks familiar. The victim is an old flame of his, murdered at a place where they had enjoyed a bit of loving many years back. This places him on the list of suspects, though he knows it is just a formality. However, more and more bodies start to turn up, all with the same grisly MO, all with a sexual history with Jack and so the hunt is on for a serial killer who seems to know an impossible amount about Jack’s past.
The River Murders boasts an intriguing premise and quasi-religious undertones, with the killer (whose identity but not his motives we discover relatively early on) quoting passages and characters from the Bible within the various notes he leaves for the police and FBI. This could draw comparisons with David Fincher’s Seven, though this is far from being in the same league as that modern masterpiece. Having said that, this is very much a grown up work in that vein, grisly, brutal and at times ruthless, though lacking the relentless remorselessness of Fincher’s clear forebear.
Distractingly, the film begins in a very stilted manner, with line deliveries from Liotta, Ving Rhames (his boss) and Christian Slater (as the Federal Investigator assigned to the case) coming across terribly. No-one really seems to have their heart in the project in general or their respective performances in particular and it feels like we are going to be in for a very long 90 minutes. However, with the Making Of revealing that a meagre 2 days of rehearsals before a 3-week shoot was all that the cast had to work with, it raises the suspicion that it simply took the principals a little time to hit their stride and such proves to be the case with the performances becoming more fully embodied as we pass beyond the first half hour.
Although the mystery of why the killer is picking on women with a connection to Jack will be worked out by many, it is far from obvious and at least makes sense within the narrative. Too often within this genre we are presented with supernaturally gifted/strong/knowledgeable killers and it is reassuring to be presented with someone relatively realistic, even if his more hysterical religious outpourings feel a little at odds with the otherwise measured tone of the rest of the film and acting performances.
The script builds convincingly to an energetic and confrontational climax and although it lacks the stones to really stick the knife in at the end, it still has gruesome and distressing elements that for certain viewers will be welcome given how predictable and derivative serial killer films can be. A holdall full of aborted foetuses will be a bridge too far for some, but at least it demonstrates a commitment to the multi-dimensionality of the antagonist, rather than watering him down.
For the principal and better known actors, they are way below their best (Goodfellas/Narc, Pulp Fiction/Con Air, True Romance/Pump Up The Volume), but as already mentioned, at least find their way into their characters before too long. To their respective credit, they certainly do not phone in their performances and Liotta at times gives a decent performance of a man mystified, desperate and laden with guilt.
It is a long way from the best work that any of them have been involved in, but equally far from their worst and although its somewhat cowardly conclusion will frustrate some, it has a certain amount of atmosphere and gruesomeness to commend it. It won’t linger long in the memory, but is an entertaining and engaging enough way to spend 90 minutes. You can catch it on DVD from 14th May.
Extras: Making Of – very short and largely redundant. Commentaries – one features the director, editor and cinematographer and makes for interesting viewing, pulling back the curtain as it does on how to make a fully-fledged feature with a 22-day shooting schedule (answer – CG rain). The other includes the writer and a couple of cast members, who shed interesting light on just how long it takes to shoot a seemingly straightforward round-table dialogue scene – 3 days for five minutes of screen time apparently. It could be argued that these commentaries are more than the film deserves, but it is welcome to see care and attention going into commentaries.