Murder by Numbers (2002)

D: Barbet Schroeder
S: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling

Change of pace star vehicle for producer Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality) written by Tony Gayton and directed by Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female). The story is a variant on the Leopold and Loeb story where two young men convinced of their superiority to other mere mortals plan and execute a 'perfect' murder. Bullock, a homicide detective with a past, senses something is amiss with these youths but cannot prove it. She sets out to find the cracks in their story partly out of a sense of justice partly because solving the crime would bring closure to her own personal history of victimisation by handsome youths (her high-school sweetie became her wife-beating husband that left her for dead after an attack).

No one says that the characters played here by Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt are homosexual, but there is a strong subtextual suggestion that their involvement with each other extends beyond what is shown. They play Russian roulette in a windswept shack at the edge of a cliff decorated with a composite photograph which blends their faces. Among the few pieces of furniture in this place is a bed, upon which at one point one of them sits. While one makes a presentation in class, the other gazes intensely at him, their eyes meeting and speaking on more than one level. Coy it may be, but this seems to be an attempt to suggest there is more here than the film wants to make clear. Wondering precisely why this particular strand of characterisation was omitted is actually more intriguing than working through the dynamics of the story itself, which in spite of an admirably non-exploitative tone, is still nothing more than a by-the-numbers programmer. Just because the title clues you in to the fact does not make it subversive. Perhaps the homosexual dynamic interfered with the underlying thematic concern with Bullock's psychosexual dysfunction, making it necessary to at least maintain the pretence that the boys' sexuality was a lingering (masculine) threat. Maybe. At any rate, the Leopold and Loeb story has been told before, by Hitchcock in Rope, which also hid behind suggestion, and then in Swoon, where homophobia was as much a concern as the homosexuality of the killers.

Perhaps I am getting sidetracked here, but in fairness the film itself does not lend itself to much analysis. It is unpretentious and relatively successful in detailing the particulars of the case and pitting investigation against execution in the time-honoured tradition. Schroeder does not bring much visual energy to it, but tries to use cross-cutting to provide it with a thematically and narratively interrelated structure. The final result is watchable without being particularly involving, which is perhaps a problem given the nature of the material and the approach it takes. Perhaps we should be more involved, or care enough about victims, potential victims, and survivors to respond to these characters with something more than indifferent acceptance.

The difficulty here is that Bullock underplays her character in an attempt to erase her girl-next-door persona, and though she succeeds, she fails to replace it with a convincing characterisation. There is not enough variety in her demonstrated emotion to flesh out this character, who is supposed to be recovering from domestic abuse (and attempted murder), has problems with intimacy, but is very much her own person in spite of it. The fact that that 'person' is of course demolished by her experiences here, prompting a suggestion of growth to come as the narrative closes, seems contradictory in a way which Bullock has insufficient skill and experience to make into an irony. The supporting cast take their cue from Bullock and more or less everyone goes around with a dour expression. Gosling and Pitt have a little more animation, but it is of the expected variety given the genre. Ben Chaplin has a fairly thankless role as Bullock's investigative partner with whom she becomes romantically entwined in an unexpectedly timed scene which actually works for the plot. Chris Penn (Rush Hour) has a small but sleazy role which he plays quite well.

Overall the film tries to steer clear of genre clichés and the easy pleasures of exploitation, but it does not go far enough in the direction of realism to make it into a tough-minded procedural thriller in the Day of the Jackal mould. It ends up lacking cinematic identity, and like Bullock's attempt to repress her personality in favour of something more serious, leaves a vacuum at its centre. It may pass the time for genre fans on a slow night, but there is no urgency to see it before it begins turning up on network television and no real compulsion to watch it when it does.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.