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Murder By Numbers

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Murder By Numbers

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Rated: R
RunTime: 125 Minutes
Release Date: April 2002
Genre: Suspense

*Also starring: Michael Pitt, Chris Penn, Ben Chaplin

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

Odd, isn't it, that the release of "Murder by Numbers," a psychological suspense thriller dealing with two young men that set out to kill, comes on the same week as the third anniversary of the Columbine killings? Just last night a new Columbine documentary aired, following a team of experts as they visited the scene of the mass slayings looking for answers. What could prompt two young men to go on a murderous rampage? Behavioral experts and the families of the victims warn the media that giving attention to such people serves only to help inspire the next set of youthful assassins, but many of us remain fascinated in the grisly business. We want to climb into the heads of the killers, to get some clue of what triggered their nightmarish behavior.

"Murder by Numbers," written by Tony Gayton ("The Salton Sea") and directed by Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune"), is at its best when focusing on its pair of teen killers. Unfortunately, the film loses steam whenever it shifts to the adult pair investigating the crime, which is often.

The project was initially conceived by producer Richard Crystal, who harbors a fascination for the historic 1924 Leopold and Loeb case, where two bright young men cooked up and enacted a murder/kidnap scheme, primarily to see if they could get away with it. But producer Susan Hoffman says, "Our inspirational references were more contemporary: Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' and also the Dartmouth murders of 2000 where two young men killed two college professors primarily for the thrill."

"Murder by Numbers" introduces students Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling) and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt). The product of upper middle class homes in a small California coastal town; they are social outcasts within the high school community. Justin is a sulky, self-pitying romantic, a student of Rimbaud and Nietzche, while Richard is a glib, well-to-do Eddie Haskell type whose broad smile is betrayed by the wicked glint in his eyes.

In school they pretend to be enemies, but in private they are best friends, sharing an intensely personal relationship. At times their intimacy seems to border on the erotic, but with Richard often serving as the ersatz father to the more emotionally needy Justin, their bond is likely pre-sexual. Regardless, they are co-conspirators in a vile scheme to murder an innocent and plant evidence to frame an adult acquaintance for the crime.

When the body of a young woman is found in the woods, veteran homicide detective Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) takes the case, accompanied by a new partner, the very green Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin). Cassie has a reputation for being very good with forensics and very bad with co-workers. She is a smart, blunt, sexually aggressive cop trying to cope with her personal demons. Sam is unusually passive and clearly intimidated by Cassie.

The biggest problem with "Murder by Numbers" is Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin. Portraying a capable, dedicated investigator dealing with memories of some unspoken trauma (one which is all too easy to figure out) proves to be too much for Bullock and her stilted performance grows increasingly tiresome as the film trudges on. As for Chaplin, he is the personification of listlessness, coming off less like a cop and more like a monk forced into community service. Could anyone be more boring than this guy?

The boys, on the other hand, are very good. As Richard, Ryan Gosling is smarmy and mesmerizing, and Michael Pitt somehow manages to simultaneously seem childlike and reptilian as Justin. Both of the young actors project their own versions of crawl space sexuality. Most importantly, each of them accomplishes the vital task of seeming redeemable. They certainly brought out the father in me. Even as I recoiled from their inhuman machinations, I caught myself thinking, "If only the right adult stepped in, these boys could still be turned around."

For a thriller based around an extremely intricate plan, "Murder by Numbers" has a surprising number of plot holes. I won't detail them here suffice to say that either the principal characters, on both sides of the law, are not nearly as smart as they think they are, or the writer failed to fully think through his plotlines. One thing is for sure: The writer created two of the most fascinating villains I've seen onscreen in a while.

According to the Columbine documentary, disturbed young people seek out movies, games and music that reinforce their antisocial leanings. Hopefully, "Murder by Numbers" will be taken as nothing more than a moderately gripping thriller and not as the blueprint for the next set of teenage twistos.

Copyright 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott

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