Murder by Numbers (2002) Movie Review

Besides the fact that it’s not terribly interesting, Sandra Bullock’s “Murder by Numbers” offers us a premise that looks as if it has been lifted from an old episode of “Columbo”. The big idea here is that two unlikely high school teens — spoiled rich kid Richard (Ryan Gosling) and weirdo loner Justin (Michael Pitt) — have teamed up to discover the joys of killing. After the duo kills a woman, they believe they’ve committed the perfect crime; besides planting evidence, they’ve also successfully framed the school janitor.

But of course, just as it was the case in “Columbo”, this is not a movie about killers getting away scot free, it’s about killers who thinks they’ve gotten away, until they meet their match in a clever detective. Instead of an old L.A.P.D. Homicide Detective in a wrinkled coat and puffing on a cigar, the Homicide cop here is Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock). Cassie has such a tough reputation that her male counterparts refer to her as “The Hyena”. This name was given to Cassie because, as Cassie informs her rookie partner Sam (Ben Chaplin), female hyenas have a protrusion on their body that resembles a penis. By way of association, they’re saying that Cassie acts more like a man than a woman.

The whole Cassie-as-man-in-woman’s-skin isn’t completely without reason, and writer Tony Gayton and director Barbet Schroeder goes out of their way to introduce us to Cassie’s history, which also explains why she became a cop in the first place. Of course doesn’t actually explain why Cassie acts more like a chauvinistic pig in woman’s clothing than she does an actual human being. For example, after a night of sex with Sam, Cassie kicks him out of bed and tells him to get lost. The film gives numerous reasons for Cassie’s present state of mind and behavior by way of a series of lengthy and wholeheartedly tedious flashbacks. I suppose the filmmakers feel her behavior is justified, but I don’t buy it.

Back to the murder mystery. The film opens and closes with Richard and Justin making a pact to kill someone so they can be true “free men.” Oh, and there’s a whole big hubbub about how the two boys indulge in unfulfilled homoeroticism attraction for one another. This is supposed to be a big deal, I guess. By the film’s end, we’re supposed to care who was really in charge of the plan. Was it the spoiled Richard, who has always had everything his way? Or was it the quiet Leonardo DiCaprio-look-alike Justin, who may be falling in love with a female classmate and regaining his conscience.

Try as they might, neither Ryan Gosling nor Michael Pitt, despite being terrific young actors, could make me really care about their fates. I could care less if these two kids “got away with it” or “is smarter than the cops” or a number of other questions that the movie raises, all for naught. This is mostly the fault of Schroeder and his editor; the two men do such a poor job of intercutting between the killers’ contested relationship and Cassie’s investigation, that no momentum is ever achieved. The movie feels flat. Also, there are simply too many threads running at once, with the biggest problem being that not a single one of them is interesting enough in itself to construct a film around.

As to the investigation into the murder? A complete snorefest. There’s nothing here to make you sit up and notice. Nothing that hasn’t been done in countless other cop movies. I also take exception with Cassie’s wardrobe. Because she walks and talks like a hardened “male” cop, she wears black almost exclusively. And don’t get me started on that black leather jacket. I expected more from screenwriter Tony Gayton, who turned in a terrific story in the far superior “The Salton Sea” with Val Kilmer. Where’s the originality in “Murder by Numbers?”

The only saving grace of “Murder by Numbers” is a 20-minute segment near the end when Cassie and Sam brings both teens into the precinct and interviews them individually, trying to get them to turn on each other. This sequence offers the film’s best moments, but unfortunately even that scene is plague with terrible gaping plot holes and large leaps of logic by the heroes. For the last hour and a half, Cassie and Sam are clueless about the murder, but suddenly — eureka! — they have everything figured out. It’s a stretch, to be sure.

I commend Sandra Bullock for wanting to do something other than the usual romantic comedy. The problem is, “Murders by Numbers” is a poor choice to showcase more than silliness. Bullock’s Cassie struts around like a tough cop, but when push comes to shove, she fades like a shrinking violet. Consider a scene where Ryan Gosling’s Richard intimidates her while she’s sitting in her car. Pathetic doesn’t begin to describe Bullock’s version of tough cop in this scene. If you’re going to play the part, then play it all the way through. Consistency does matter.

Now that I think about it, that old episode of “Columbo” was much more entertaining than this big-budget movie by a wide margin. Not only was that episode a lot more clever, but even as a 2-hour episode it still seemed much shorter than this bloated misfire.

Barbet Schroeder (director) / Tony Gayton (screenplay)
CAST: Sandra Bullock …. Cassie
Ben Chaplin …. Sam Kennedy
Ryan Gosling …. Richard Haywood
Michael Pitt …. Justin Pendleton
Agnes Bruckner …. Lisa Mills
Chris Penn …. Ray

Buy Murder by Numbers on DVD