Murder By Numbers

Movie Information

Genre: Thriller
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Ben Chaplin
Rated: R

When people see the name Barbet Schroeder, there’s an immediate tendency to think, “Oh, Reversal of Fortune.” In fact, they might do better to more warily think, “Oh, Single White Female.” And while Murder by Numbers isn’t quite in that latter league of silly suspenser, it’s closer to that than to Reversal of Fortune. Murder by Numbers isn’t really a bad film, and what isn’t good about it isn’t so much Schroeder’s fault as it’s the fault of the script — which simply goes to the well once too often. In fact, if the viewer doesn’t know anything about the historical case of Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s, or any of the theatrical and film variants — Patrick Hamilton’s play, Rope, Hitchcock’s film of Rope, Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion, Tom Kalin’s Swoon — chances are that this updated reworking will seem a good bit more impressive. The basic premise in all cases is the same: A pair of homosexual intellectuals with a Nietzsche complex commit a murder primarily to prove that they can get away with it, thereby demonstrating their superiority to the people around them. What Murder by Numbers brings to the concept consists of little more than making the characters somewhat younger and modernizing the whole thing. Screenwriter Tom Gayton — and presumably Schroeder and executive producer/star Sandra Bullock — seem to feel that this makes the story more relevant. That’s open to question, especially since the script’s entire approach is to present the killers as poor little rich boys with platinum cards and uncaring parents (this isn’t all that much of a departure from the earlier efforts), give them an elaborate (albeit sometimes faulty) knowledge of modern criminal investigation, and throw in a little Columbine-esque disaffection for one boy and a dollop of Iron Maiden fixation for the other. If anything, transporting what is essentially the same story to modern times undermines the film’s attempt to be some kind of indictment of the modern age. After all, if this could happen in the 1920s (which is when it actually did happen), then the story is hardly specific to the 21st century. Further, the homoerotic aspects of the boys’ relationship is astonishingly tentative — to such a degree that it becomes difficult to quite believe in their mutual devotion. Moreover, the film short-circuits its efforts at being “significant” by throwing in a secondary plot involving Bullock’s character’s own psychological problems — all of which are improbably spelled out for even the most passive viewer and none of which ever raise the question of exactly how this woman made it through the psych tests to get onto the police force in the first place! All of that, however, seems as nothing compared to the wholly arbitrary injection of a baboon into the proceedings for a cheap shock effect to propel Bullock and the viewer into a blast from her past when she was an attempted murder victim. (One wonders if maybe Gayton took Wes Craven’s claim, “Our research tells us that monkeys test well,” in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back a little too seriously.) However, the film manages to be fairly involving, thanks largely to strong performances from Bullock and Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), which serve to raise the film considerably above the shortcomings of the screenplay. Ryan Gosling (Remember the Titans) as the other youthful killer isn’t bad, but his role lacks the more complex shadings found in Pitt’s character. Ben Chaplin, on the other hand, continues to be about as exciting as a trip to a day-old bread store, but, fortunately, isn’t sufficiently central to the film to deal it the kind of narcoleptic blow he visited on Birthday Girl. Despite some of the worst effects work in living memory during the film’s climactic scene (which tries way too hard to be Hitchcockian), Schroeder — with the help of Bullock and Pitt — has made the best film possible from the material at hand.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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