Murder by Numbers

Murder by Numbers
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Screenplay: Tony Gayton
Stars: Sandra Bullock (Cassie Mayweather), Ryan Gosling (Richard Haywood), Michael Pitt (Justin Pendleton), Ben Chaplin (Sam Kennedy), Agnes Bruckner (Lisa), Chris Penn (Ray), R.D. Call (Rod), Tom Verica (Al Swanson)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2002
Country: USA

Never as disturbing or evocative as it would like to be, Murder by Numbers plods through its psychological murder-mystery trappings like well-worn clothes, and the edges are definitely starting to look frayed. There are the roots of something truly disquieting here, but the film's slick, but routine Hollywood polish keeps it level and unmemorable.

Sandra Bullock has top billing as Cassie Mayweather, a tough police detective with a mysterious past that explains her often-destructive behavior (toward both herself and others). But, the film truly belongs to Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt as Richard Haywood and Justin Pendleton, two rich, bored high school seniors who decide to pull off a perfect murder just because they don't have anything better to do. Actually, that's not quite true. Well-dressed and extroverted Richard's motives are largely narcissistic--he's so enthralled with his own good looks and good fortune that murdering someone becomes an exercise in testing his untouchability. For Justin, on the other hand, who is brainy and reserved--a nerd, for lack of a better word--it becomes a chance to test the nihilistic philosophy that he reads in his spare time, to determine if Nietzsche's proclamations that crime and free will are one in the same are really true.

Tony Gayton's script doesn't try to hide the identity of the murderers. Rather, he is interested in the psychological ramifications of what would drive two 18-year-olds to such extremes. In the post-Columbine world, the idea of teens killing is terribly familiar, and the reasons supplied here--too much money, too much time, not enough parental oversight--are, as well. Richard and Justin are interesting, although not entirely believable, characters, which is the first of the films flaws.

Justin, being as well-read as he is, knows virtually all of the forensic and investigative tricks the police have up their sleeves, so he is able to plan a murder that not only hides his and Richard involvement, but also clearly pins it on the school's dope-peddling janitor (Chris Penn). Yet, human nature intervenes at the last minute, and Justin ends up leaving behind a literal pile of evidence that becomes the key to his and Richard's undoing. There is also the jealousy factor, as Justin and Richard both vie for the affections of a pretty blonde (Agnes Bruckner), although their reasons for doing so are completely different (this also underscores the film's undeniable gay subtext, as the relationship between Richard and Justin often plays like that of conflicted lovers, rather than simply partners in crime).

When not following the deeds of the teen killers, Murder by Numbers focuses on the problems faced by Cassie and her new partner, the fresh-faced and naive Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin, who seems to have focused his entire career on playing such characters). Cassie has a "big secret" in her past, one that is gradually revealed and is hardly surprising. She is nicknamed "the hyena" at work because, as she explains, female hyenas have mock penises (how Freudian). The men in the police department obviously feel threatened by both Cassie's assertiveness and her obvious intellect, and the film would seem to be on her side, even when her behavior borders on the juvenile and ridiculous.

Yet, something infuriating happens every time Cassie finds herself in a tough situation: She becomes a victim. Granted, the script essentially explains this through her "big secret," yet it is a flimsy excuse to give us yet another female character who easily falls victim to male aggression, particularly when she is a trained police officer and the attacker is a high school senior. Gayton's script relies heavily on the psychological dimension here, making a connection between Richard and a person in Cassie's past, but it is too weak to fully hold up, more the workings of a carefully contrived plot than an understandable human reaction.

Director Barbet Schroeder, whose work with suspense-thrillers veers from the good (Single White Female, 1988), to the not so good (Desperate Measures, 1998), does what he can with the material, but the resulting film is, in a word, routine. Bullock turns in a good, if not particularly memorable, performance as the deeply flawed Cassie, and Chaplin is largely a nonpresence, given that his character exists solely to respond to her. Ryan Gosling, who has earned enormous praise for his daring role as a self-loathing Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer (2001), and Michael Pitt, from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), are both strong in their roles, even if their characters are more a composite of adult fears about wealthy, out-of-control adolescents than they are human beings.

The film largely succeeds in humanizing these teenage killers, but the hackneyed climax, complete with bad blue-screen work and a damsel dangling in distress, simply reminds us of how unwilling Murder by Numbers is to truly delve into its disturbing subject matter and how happy it is to play everything, as it were, by the numbers.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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