Stylish, civic minded, well acted, and ultimately disappointing, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s twisty mystery A Murder at the End of the World has put its emphasis in all the wrong places. Despite creating a new breed of fictional detective that it would be easy to build multiple instalments around, A Murder at the End of the World follows two different, but interlocking story tracks, one of which is vastly more interesting than the other. Unfortunately for series creators Marling and Batmanglij, they’ve chosen the more stylish, overstuffed, and obvious one to serve as a focal point, where the more interesting story thread is relegated to becoming just another origin story.
True crime author and tenacious, technically inclined sleuth Darby Hart (Emma Corrin) has just released a book based on her experiences tracking down a serial killer with her closest friend Bill (Harris Dickinson). What happened on their fateful road trip forever altered their lives, and the two haven’t spoken in the years since. At a reading and after being branded as “Gen-Z’s Sherlock Holmes,” Darby is noticed by the head of security (Louis Cancelmi) for innovative tech pioneer Andy Ronson (Clive Owen), who happens to be married to one of Darby’s idols, legendary computer hacker Lee Anderson (Marling). Darby is invited to a special “symposium” of sorts that Andy holds every year, where some of the world’s greatest thinkers meet in secret to come up with new concepts and innovations. This year’s edition is taking place at a new luxury hotel Andy has built in the middle of the Icelandic tundra, far from civilization. One of the many attendees – five of which have been invited by Andy, and four by Lee – happens to be Bill, now working as an elusive, but highly sought after a Banksy-like artist. But just as the pair are starting to get reacquainted, one of the guests is murdered, and it seems like Andy is reluctant to have the proper authorities investigate what happened. Andy demands the meeting of the minds continue on as if nothing happened, piquing Darby’s suspicions and starting her second major murder investigation.
A Murder at the End of the World bounces back and forth between past and present. There’s all the stuff at the hotel, which includes the requisite twists, turns, and revelations that are staples of the mystery genre, and there’s the less mysterious, more etherial stuff set in the past, where the younger Darby and the older Bill use their shared love for unsolved mysteries to piece together a series of killings across the midwestern United States that are bound together by an unusual set of clues. The vast majority of A Murder at the End of the World is the Icelandic stuff, which ends up being a shame because the moments where Corrin and Dickson are allowed to play off each other without a bunch of other guests, red herrings, and needless plotting getting in the way are where the series shines brightest and most effectively.
Marling and Batmanglij (who have spent most of their professional careers collaborating on films like The East and Sound of My Voice and the Netflix series The OA) mount their Icelandic set mystery more or less like an exact cross between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Glass Onion, and any number of Agatha Christie adaptations, and there are few moments throughout the core thread of A Murder at the End of the World that don’t feel derivative or reminiscent of better productions. The ice and snowbound compound is populated by a slew of colourful guests harbouring secrets – Alice Braga as an astronaut with plans to colonize the moon, Joan Chen as a Chinese security expert, Javed Khan as a climatologist and activist, Jermaine Fowler as a filmmaker keen on exploring new uses of AI, Pegah Ferydoni as an Iranian revolutionary skilled in encryption – all of whom have direct connections to their mysterious, paranoid hosts. Unfortunately, the ways in which writer/directors Marling and Batmanglij mete out there clues backs the mystery into a corner, where really there are a small handful of possibilities when it comes to unmasking the killer, all of which seem like uninspired, but understandably logical choices. The performers are all doing their part, but some clearly have a lot more to do than others, making every mounting revelation feel less like puzzle pieces falling into place and more like foregone conclusions.
Similarly, the location means there’s only so much that can be done in terms of sleuthing beyond simple deductive reasoning and computer hacking. There aren’t very many thrills in this thriller, and the quite literally locked in location means there’s very little means of deviation from occasional moments of monotony. With the hosts being tech genius billionaires, obviously there’s a lot of security measures and quirks around their compound, many of which can be easily thwarted or exploited, depending on wherever the creators need their story to go. There’s the interesting inclusion of an omnipresent AI assistant (Edoardo Ballerini) the guests can call upon for help, but outside of that wrinkle, every step in A Murder at the End of the World can be traced back to other recent and classic mysteries that employed these concepts in better ways. It all looks rather cool and speaks to some impressive production design touches, but the story itself is lacking in overall originality.
In place of any originality is plenty of social commentary, which is all well and good (especially when one considers that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Glass Onion were both topical mysteries in step with the times), but a lot of these issues and cautionary asides feel shoehorned in rather than organic. Marling and Batmanglij have proven to be creatives willing to explore larger controversies, issues, and inequalities in their previous works, but the chance to do a mystery with a large cast of people that can stand in for a number of different talking points at the same time – climate change crisis, ethical usage of technology, the surveillance state, our collective obsession with true crime, the advancement of AI, disability rights, abuse of power, doxxing, revenge porn, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong – means that any meaningful points become muted in a sea of noise and plot twists. For filmmakers that are used to giving viewers some extra food for thought, Batmanglij and Marling have made the subtext of their latest feel less meaningful than a list of talking points that can be disguised as clues and motivations. It’s not landing at all.
But amid everything that feels stock in this slightly less than passable effort is something brilliant and achingly beautiful. Whenever A Murder at the End of the World turns an eye to the past and focuses on the tumultuous relationship between Darby and Bill, the series bursts to life. Although they do an exceptional job in the Icelandic setting with their performances, the work being put in by Dickinson and Corrin really soars whenever they’re allowed to explore their characters in a separate mystery that’s a lot more entrancing and etherial. There’s a palpable “will they or won’t they” attraction between Darby and Bill throughout these segments, and even though the viewer knows very early on that the attraction is real, the competing personalities and their levels of obsession with the case at hand makes for extremely compelling viewing, and allows the actors and writers to show what the show could be at its level best. These segments feel like a true crime lover’s version of Malick’s Badlands as filtered through the lens of Fincher’s Zodiac. It’s romantic, menacing, smart, and heartfelt every time the story circles back around to the past to provide context to the Darby’s state of mind in the present. It’s almost revelatory, and proves why Corrin and Dickinson are two of the most sought after up and coming talents at the moment.
But those glimpses to the past account for maybe only a quarter of the total running time of A Murder at the End of the World, and the other seventy-five percent is rote, tiresome, and obvious. The bulk of the series will please those with a low bar for mysteries, but leave everyone else wondering why they aren’t watching the many better films, series, and books that Marling and Batmanglij are taking inspiration from instead. It’s a bit like watching an exceptional concept and its far lesser sequel stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. Unfortunately, that bloated, lacking sequel eclipses the better aspects of the story as a whole.
A Murder at the End of the World streams on Disney+ in Canada with a two episode premiere on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, with a new episode each following Tuesday. It streams on Hulu in the United States.
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