Gerardo Herrero’s 2019 thriller The Goya Murders broadly sticks to genre convention and stereotype, but there’s a level of remixing going on that pushes it out ahead of the pack. Fans of serial killer narratives should enjoy it despite its imperfections – as should fans of lead Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También, Pan’s Labyrinth).
A woman is found dead in her apartment, posed and dressed in a particular manner. When police investigator Carmen Cobos (Verdú) and her new partner Eva Gonzalez (Aura Garrido) are assigned to the case, they soon become drawn into a string of murders – each victim a member of Madrid’s elite fine art scene, and all posed to resemble the works of artist Francisco Goya.
There is something decidedly 1990s about The Goya Murders. It was a time when Hollywood became oddly fixated on serial killer narratives, leading to a string of commercial hits and misses including The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Copycat, The Bone Collector, Kiss the Girls, Fallen, Summer of Sam – honestly one could fill this entire review if we were to list them all. The Goya Murders slots comfortably into this cinematic milieu. In particular it apes the somewhat bleak, baroque tone of David Fincher’s Seven (1995) as well as duplicates its old jaded cop/fresh new detective double act – something Seven itself lifted from Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949).
The film also feels quite old-fashioned due to its production values and mise-en-scene. There is a particular made-for-television quality to the film, and it is a quality shared with Herrero’s earlier murder mystery The Beach of the Drowned (2015). While both films feel satisfactory, albeit a little generic, they seem less suited to the big screen than to Sunday nights on the BBC: straightforward plotting, a somewhat cozy pace, and characters drawn with only so much detail and nuance as the detective story requires. It is slickly and efficiently staged, but it lacks any significant aesthetic ambition.
So far, ho hum. Where The Goya Murders does manage to excel is in two areas. Firstly, the use of noted 18th-19th century painter Goya not only adds a nice level of historical detail but also helps to give the film a specifically Spanish edge. The film’s specific use of Goya’s Los caprichos series of late 19th century prints provide it with a lot to say about class and privilege in Spain. There is nothing particularly deep going on, but it does offer some badly-needed texture to an otherwise ordinary thriller.
The film also manages a key gender flip that adds a modicum of freshness and originality. By taking the mismatched detective formula from Seven and Stray Dog, and then making those characters women, Cobos and Gonzalez spring off the screen as The Goya Murders‘ best asset. The tired and cynical persona of the older partner means something very different when it’s a woman: a male alcoholic engaging in ill-advised affairs with colleagues rarely gets judged like a female one would, and this is very much picked up and capitalised upon with Cobos. It is boosted by a strong performance by Maribel Verdú, who very much pushes the character into a hugely flawed and disreputable direction. At the same time it is nice to see Aura Garrido play out material that allows Gonzalez to simultaneously be a competent police officer, a woman with an active social life, and a mother caring for a small child.
With The Goya Murders audiences get a satisfying thriller but a fairly disposable one too. There are better films out there, but certainly there are many that are far, far worse.