Channeling Clint Eastwood: Sandra Bullock, crime fighter, has murderous high schoolers to find.
Thrill Kill Cult
Sandra Bullock stars as a troubled cop in the satisfying 'Murder by Numbers'
San Benito (read Morro Bay) homicide detective Cassie Mayweather (read Sandra Bullock) has a bad reputation for promiscuity and knife scars she doesn't talk about. Her newest case is the apparently random slaying of a middle-aged woman. But we're already ahead of her: We know that the culprits are a pair of high-school thrill-killers. One is a brainy Peter Lorre type named Richard (Ryan Gosling) whose misreadings of Nietzsche and Rimbaud have lead him to the usual homicidal precipice. His best friend (and perhaps lover), the mocking rich boy Justin (Michael Pitt, recently seen as Tommy Gnosis, the boy who drove Hedwig around the bend in Hedwig and the Angry Inch), helps him match philosophy to deeds.
The title makes it clear that this film's ambitions are modest. Bullock, also listed as executive producer, relieved some of the expense with her usual careful product placement. Still, Murder by Numbers is a satisfying police story, with the personal life of Bullock's Mayweather counterpointing the scheming of the two killers. The alert, handsome Bullock does what Clint Eastwood is usually credited with: She takes a basic portrait of a cop and turns it into a study of wounded remoteness.
In a clever switch, Murder by Numbers has its female detective lead play the sexual aggressor; Mayweather's partner, Sam--Ben Chaplin as a nice, polite guy who's perhaps a little inexperienced, perhaps a little wimpy--is unwilling to remain simply Mayweather's sex partner. And he gets miffed when she prefers to sleep alone, kicking him out of bed. Thanks to Bullock's craft and Chaplin's patient, slightly comic dignity, Mayweather's line "Don't worry, I'll still respect you" gets a laugh, even though our concerns for this bottled-up woman grow.
Director Barbet Schroeder (Our Lady of the Assassins) has the humanity to tell a story of a murdered woman without getting off on it. He also has the style to bring out sympathy for the villains, to make a joke out of the things meant as seriously scary in Tony Gayton's script. Justin is an appealing creep, showing off, playing the Satanist, blaring Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast" from his car stereo. There's even pathos in Richard's chance for sanity--a doomed affair with a girl he likes, Lisa (Agnes Brucker), who has a baby face and burnt-out eyes. Their romance is one of Murder by Numbers' crafty thematic borrowings from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
The pace of Murder by Numbers flags at times, and the ending has the too-traditional shootout and too-traditional twist. But it's been a while since we've had a Leopold-Loeb story; that now legendary tale is retold well here, and Bullock is compelling throughout.
You don't want this deft actress typecast, but she really is at her best as a cop. Maybe, somewhere down the line, she should remake Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground. You could just see her in the Robert Ryan part, beating up a suspect and crying, "See what you made me do?"
'Murder by Numbers' opens in North Bay theaters on Friday, April 19.
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From the April 18-24, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.