Murder by Numbers

"You've started a chain reaction that could bring about the next apocalypse!"

Murder by Numbers, a de facto remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, is an intriguing film that falls back on thriller conventions just when it needs to make a move of its own. It begins admirably only to reveal cracks in its foundation in the second act, then crumble entirely in the third. By the time I realized that the movie, after casting the brilliant Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt to play modern versions of Leopold and Loeb, is interested mainly in the exorcism of Sandra Bullock’s personal demons, I got a strong urge to bail, an urge that was retroactively justified by the reprehensible closing scenes.

Richard Haywood (Gosling) and Justin Pendleton (Pitt) are two high-schoolers who think, or posture — or maybe they’re just looking for an adventure — that by committing the perfect crime, by exercising their will to power, they will attain the freedom that Nietzsche wrote of. They pick a random victim, after much bustle about whether or not their selection is truly random, and proceed to execute their elaborately planned murder plot, calculated to leave a misleading trail of evidence where there is a trail at all. Everything goes essentially according to plan, except that at a crucial moment, Justin vomits, leaving valuable DNA in a place where both of them would prefer that it not be found.

But lest you get excited, the movie is told mostly from the point of view of detective Cassie Mayweather, a veteran with a Case That Haunts Her. She has lost the respect of most of her co-workers, who now treat her warily, like a time-bomb ready to unleash another mishap on the homicide department. Her new trainee, innocently monikered Sam Kennedy, is by the book; she follows nothing but her instincts. Soon, the case becomes an intellectual contest between her and Richard, the latter being precisely of the ilk that has wronged her: the attractive, popular, hyper-intelligent hotshot who seems to be able to talk his way out of anything.

Okay, look: I like Sandra Bullock. I think she is funny. I think she can be charming. That is, she can be when she is given something to do. Her role here is hampered by two major snakes in her boot: first, her character is infinitely less interesting, what with her maudlin Personal Issues, than the charismatic murderers and their titular deed. Second, because of the way the Bullock character is set up, the movie is pretty much required to give us an ending that will neatly resolve both the murder procedural and the aforementioned Personal Issues.

Unfortunately, when this resolution arrives, it hits the precise wrong note, and we cringe when Cassie, in one of the film’s last scenes, tells a character in no uncertain terms that he can’t escape responsibility for his actions. The scene is so phony and wrong that, in our disgust, we almost forget about the sequence that preceded it, an almost unbelievably trite boogeyman climax that ends, wouldn’t you know it, with a character falling off a deck to his death on the rocks below (you would think that bad guys wouldn’t be so keen to climb to these high places after a dozen or so movies).

Nonetheless, even when Murder by Numbers begins to fall into its own traps, it remains watchable almost until the bitter end, thanks mostly to assured performances from Gosling, Pitt, and yes, even Bullock. Gosling, a fascinating young actor who can be seen in an astonishing performance in the controversial The Believer, imbues his character with just the right amount of rich-boy cockiness, giving his high-concept character more personality than he probably deserves. Pitt is also interesting, perfectly cast as the withdrawn, intellectual outcast, and we understand why his character falls in with the smooth talking of the equally bright, more daring Richard.

I will resist making the obvious pun by adding a definite article to the title, but that’s pretty much what Murder by Numbers winds up being. It was directed by Barbet Schroeder, semi-famous for following up the Michael Keaton schlock thriller Desperate Measures with Our Lady of the Assasins, a drama about a transsexual volleyball team, and he gives his movie a riveting air of sensational gloom-doom. The debut script by Tony Gayton completely betrays the director’s compelling tone.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log


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