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
"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
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