Murder by Numbers



USA 2002 : Barbet Schroeder : 120 mins

ONE-LINE REVIEW: Twisty crime-thriller – intriguing and ambitious, but tries to cover too much psychological ground and ends up an awkward hybrid of genres.

When a young woman is found strangled in a California coastal town, detective Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) is assigned to the case. Along with her partner – Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), a newcomer to the homicide division – Cassie pieces together clues that point heavily towards sleazy high-school janitor and drug dealer Ray (Chris Penn). But they point a little too heavily for Cassie’s comfort, and her relentless investigations bring up another pair of suspects – cocky teenagers Richard (Ryan Gosling) and Justin (Michael Pitt).

For the audience, however, there’s never any doubt that Richard and Justin are the culprits. Because Murder By Numbers, despite its very Agatha Christie-ish title, is much more of a why-and-how-dunnit than a who-dunnit – though the last reel does feature several twists involving exactly which of the guilty conspirators actually did the foul deed. Structured around a dizzying number of flashbacks – occasionally straightforward, but more often unreliable, teasingly misleading or downright cheating – Tony Gayton’s script, like its Nietzchean anti-heroes, certainly can’t be accused of under-ambition. But, just like Richard and Justin, Gayton isn’t quite as clever as he’d like us to think.

The main problem is trying to fit an abundance of material into the running-time and format of the conventional thriller indicated by Clint Mansell’s (disappointingly) bog-standard score. This is perhaps why the film’s generally sedate pace jarringly shifts into slam-bang action mode for the somewhat hurried finale. Murder By Numbers should perhaps have been a three-part mini-series, or even a novel: the film can’t provide enough room for the three fully rounded psychological portraits which Gayton and director Schroeder try to cram in.

It’s no fault of the actors – extrovert Gosling and introvert Pitt provide a sensational study in contrasts, and Bullock bravely avoids making Cassie especially vulnerable or sympathetic – but the relationships between the three never quite come into focus. There’s some hint of an unhealthy attraction between Cassie and Richard in the latter stages, but this angle is also frustratingly underwritten -even so, they come off much better than the hapless Chaplin, who has almost nothing to do as the sidelined Sam. More damagingly, we’re never given much reason why spoiled-brat party-dude pin-up Richard and pasty-faced, absinthe-quaffing bookworm Justin would ever be pally with each other in the first place.

Any potential homoerotic subcurrents remain just that, and Gayton has surely missed a post-modern trick by not having either of them mention the original smart-alec killers Leopold and Loeb, or even the other movies (Swoon, Compulsion, Hitchcock’s Rope) based on the case. So although there’s more than enough to keep the viewer absorbed on a scene-by-scene basis, the film ends up feeling like an awkward hybrid of genres as it hops between the police-procedural of Silence of the Lambs and the alienated-teen-scape of Crime + Punishment in Suburbia. Murder By Numbers never quite manages to forge a bridge between the two sides, and credibility is what falls down through the yawning gaps.

9th July 2002
(seen 3rd July, Warner Village, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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