MURDER BY NUMBERS
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Agnes Bruckner, Chris Penn
MPAA Rating: (for violence, language, a sex scene and brief drug use)
Running Time: 1:59
Release Date: 4/19/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Somewhere in the expanse of formula that constitutes Murder by Numbers lies a challenging and utterly fascinating film about a couple of bored kids who want to try and get away with murder simply because they can. As much as it tries to explore these sociopaths, they are ultimately there to provide villains for a police procedural thriller. The movie takes this premise and uses every formula trick in the book to surround it with a plot. Taken as a simple thriller, Murder by Numbers is entertaining with a good deal of intriguing psychological elements tossed in and, for the most part, works. The best scenes are those that place its characters in a mind game of cat-and-mouse, and there are plenty of them. The movie’s major and most devastating flaw is its reliance on formula, though, and it’s quite enough to lessen the overall impact the movie could have had.
Two high school students Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling) and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt) have come up with a plan to get away with murder. They come from completely different ends of the spectrum. Richard is a privileged, popular kid; Justin is a quiet, intellectual. Both of them share a need to prove their power and supremacy. Their plan is to pick a woman at random and set up an elaborate puzzle for the police to solve. They hope it’s far too elaborate. Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) is the homicide detective assigned to the murder and is also preparing her new partner Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin) to work with her. The investigation leads to a conflicting profile of the killer, and when a pair of missing boots lead Cassie to Richard, he leaves a less than favorable impression on her. Justin is worried about making a stupid mistake that would bring suspicion to them, and he knows that there is one piece of evidence he left at the scene that could incriminate him.
By far the most fascinating element present in Murder by Numbers is the psychological chess game being played by the killers and detectives. From the beginning, we know the kids’ plan and the mistake they made. Once the movie switches perspective to the detectives, the story takes on the structure of a police procedural. There’s a good amount of detail to the investigation, a device that can often be glossed over in movies like this. It’s intriguing to see where all of the false evidence leads and even more so to see how Cassie discovers the subtle mistakes the kids make while trying to cover up their crime. Eventually, the tables turn, and the police start playing them. There’s a convincing and engaging progression to the steady role reversal. The movie sacrifices suspense because we know so much and because the murderers themselves are the focus of so much of the story, but in its place, there’s an odd sense of reality. Perhaps this isn’t how actual murder investigations are handled, but it certainly feels like it.
Holding these elements together, though, is a script laden with typical cop genre clichés. From the very beginning, we can see them. There’s the partner-in-training, Cassie getting too involved in the case, her boss telling her to stop the investigation, Cassie taking the case on herself, etc. We wait for these scenes. They don’t feel like part of the action—just the kind of scenes that screenwriters seem to think they need to include. There’s also a personal motivation for Cassie to be involved in the law. She was viciously attacked by her ex-husband many years ago, and his parole hearing is upcoming. It certainly works to give Cassie a personal involvement in the investigation, but is it necessary at all? Why can’t the investigator simply do her job because she wants to do it? The only reason to complain about this aspect of her character is that it takes up so much screentime and never seems part of the game.
It’s all really a shame, too, because so much of the movie works—the relationship between the two murderers especially. I liked how their plan starts to unravel when a deep-seated jealously or feeling of superiority begins interfering, and both Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt are natural and compelling in their respective roles. Bullock is also fine playing a role she hasn’t played before. As involving as the movie is once the strategy slowly unravels, we’re reminded of the formula when the finale erupts in a shoot-out and tops that off with one final, forced twist, and it’s enough to lessen everything effective that’s come before it.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.