Murder By Numbers
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   E L I Z A B E T H   A B E L E

Sandra Bullock first rode to public attention as the plucky civilian driving the bus in the hit action film Speed. Her arrival in this role helped change the "female love-interest" in action films into female costar, as she was offered more money than Keanu Reeves for the sequel. Unfortunately, she has not subsequently made the mark in the action genre that youíd expect. For her role in Speed II, she reverted to the standard whiny, klutzy, non-supportive girlfriend, who needs to be rescued to forgive her action boyfriend (the producers of the sequel forgot why we liked her in the first film). The Net was an effective, paranoiac melodrama of a woman under attack, and Miss Congeniality was much more about the beauty pageant than her work as a clumsy FBI agent. In Murder by Numbers, Bullock finally takes charge as Cassie Mayweather, a top homicide investigator, in this thriller directed by Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female).

The film opens by introducing the would-be teen murderers, rehearsing their private rituals in their secret clubhouse, an abandoned oceanfront mansion. Inspired by Leopold and Loeb, the film follows the intertwined stories of the rich-kid murderers, Justin (Michael Pitt; Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Richard (Ryan Gosling), and the investigation of their crime by Cassie and new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin). Though we are continually told that these kids are privileged charmers, we rarely see them in this milieu. Instead of ruling among the shallow golden elite of Southern California, Justin and Richard are seen more in the goth setting of the abandoned house, the grime of the janitorís trailer, and the everyday humiliations of a high school classroom. The film tends to be more sympathetic with the brainy Justin, who seems more like a confused friendless, parentless teen than a rich kid--though we are told that he dines regularly in a 4-star restaurant. Instead of bringing us closer to understanding what led these boys to murder, the portrayal of these aspiring Nietzchean Uber-men becomes more and more fragmented and confused.

Bullock takes early command of her role as Cassie Mayweather, handling her departmental reputation as "The Hyena" with humor and even using it to her advantage. She knows that she is more than a hard-assed, castrating female cop, and subtly lets the audience in on the fact that there is more to her than meets the eye. The personal mystery of Cassie--why she is a homicide detective; why she is so hard and closed off--is given as much weight as the movie's central murder. However, as with Justin and Richard, though the original puzzle seems intriguing, the "resolution" is muddled and ultimately too pat (the missing puzzle pieces donít make sense). The film begins to hint that what sets her apart as a female cop is that she empathizes with the victims--but this possibility of genuine warmth in Cassie is never developed. Her empathy with victims may be no more than her own narcissism, seeing herself in their place rather than truly caring about the victims as individuals.

As confusingly complex are the characters of Justin, Richard, and Cassie, the supporting characters are never developed beyond the surface, providing no further insights into the main characters. Ben Chaplin proved that he could bring depth to supporting roles in Washington Square and Truth about Cats & Dogs. However, as Cassieís new partner/lover, Chaplinís work as the "decent man" in Murder by Numbers is merely generic. It almost feels that he is working so hard on his American accent that his entire performance is shut down and controlled. It is hard to sympathize with Samís frustration at not being able to get Cassie to open up--when we know so very little about him. Likewise, Chris Penn as the framed janitor Ray is under-utlized, never more than a pitiful lug too easily duped by Richard; and Al Swanson as the new D.A./Cassieís ex-lover is merely a stereotypical ambitious jerk.

I kept being surprised at how murky and shadowy sun-drenched Southern California looked in this film. Instead of creating a sense of mystery through complex characterizations, they simply telegraph that "this is mysterious" through bad lighting. In Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder created a complex good guy and a thoroughly enigmatic, charismatic villain. In Single White Female, he maintained an amazing level of suspense in a normal apartment building. Why in this film, with this promising premise, Schroeder had to resort to a dangerously crumbling beachhouse (doesnít anyone know how much oceanfront property is worth?) for the filmís climax is the largest mystery of Murder by Numbers.

Sandra Bullock seems to keep missing the vehicle that will show the range of her strengths and charm. She can easily portray a charismatic, professionally competent woman, with a charming sense of humor. Unfortunately, her films seem to lack confidence in the power of their leading woman, resorting to melodrama or clumsiness. Bullock and her directors donít trust that we will still like her, in fact like her better, if she can keep it together--just as she did on that speeding bus.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Castle Rock Entertainment
Movie Web site: Murder By Numbers



Photo credits: © 2002 Castle Rock Entertainment. All rights reserved.