Release Date: September 8, 2017
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 105 minutes
What Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem manages to stumble upon in its overstuffed procedural about a grisly slasher on the streets of London is a weirdly compelling treatment of the performative aspect to a serial killer.
It might seem out of character for a movie that operates like a Se7en clone with Jack the Ripper filling the John Doe role to have such a sightful and under-explored point, but look hard enough beyond its by-the-numbers plot structure and television quality look, and it’s there, desperate to have something with more substance surround it.
Sadly, the main reason I was dissatisfied with Medina’s efforts was because I could see something truly interesting resting at the core of The Limehouse Golem, which was snuffed out by convention and predictability.
Searching for this Jack Doe-Ripper are two Scotland Yard detectives (Bill Nighy and Daniel Mays), one an eager novice and the other a grizzled veteran a la Se7en who are put on the case of the savage “Golem” as the papers have dubbed him.
Coming into contact with a former vaudeville star (Olivia Cooke), who quickly becomes their first suspect, the film pushes forward as a procedural would, examining suspects and witnesses which drags their investigation through a bawdy vaudeville troupe, questioning Karl Marx (in a scene too ridiculous to be taken seriously), inching ever closer to a reveal many of you will suspect if you track this down.
Often presenting itself as a whodunnit, the film’s mystery is one of the least interesting aspects about it. The meat of Limehouse Golem is found in the setup, which waxes philosophically about the serial killers and putting on a show in sparse but appreciated moments.
The manner in which Medina presents these ideas to his audience doesn’t fully work like they should because of the mismanagement of his visual tones. Unlike a Se7en, where its form is loaded with mood, the grunge and grime you would find collected on the cobblestone streets of London or in the smoky halls of a vaudeville theatre is distractedly absent from the film’s sets, and this takes a lot away from the tone.
It’s difficult to immerse yourself into a story of slaughtered Londoners courtesy of a depraved, rambling lunatic when Medina films it all so crisp and proper like a BBC miniseries. Even when the investigation requires the detective to read through said lunatic’s journal and the film delights in “casting” a suspect in what he describes, the digital effects slathered onto these sequences to ensure you know it’s merely his hypothesis robs them of their impact.
But as I have said, what Limehouse is not tone deaf on and in fact acts surprisingly perspicacious in drawing out is its comparisons of serial killing and performance. Grounded heavily in its vaudeville milieu where “people pay to see degradation on stage,” the film’s commentary on the expectations of entertainment in an age where depravity is found on every street corner and newspaper is more knowing than I would give it credit.
There is a smart movie underneath its predictable plot structure, and sequences such as showcasing a vaudeville troupe’s mockery of the titular killer while he is still at large and suspected among them attest to the film’s poignancy. It has these flashes of inspiration that do register, but they’re quickly forgotten.
I have found myself less and less interested in whodunnits as a story type because, while a mystery is fun, it is a challenge to properly establish a compelling antagonist when his/her identity can’t be disclosed without risk of ruining the movie. So tied to this idea, Limehouse missed a fruitful opportunity to expand on what I found was the more compelling parts. Even with this in mind, Medina’s film only disappoints so far as it fails to live up to its potential. Did I mention Karl Marx is interviewed as a subject?