Directed by Barbet Schroeder. USA. 2002.

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When you go to the theatre as often as I, a break in the normal barrage of pre-film viewing is a welcome thing, and at Murder by Numbers I had one; a brand new commercial for juice which, for privacy's sake, we'll call Aipotiurf. I sat and watched as a cornucopia of pieces of fruit went by in a kaleidoscope fashion, while groovy music played, and the screen asked such thought provoking questions as, "What if everyone told the truth?" and "What if you were perfect?" After the 1,000,000 pear had mellowly whizzed past, I had started thinking to myself that this particular brand of beverage must be the most healthy, natural beverage on the planet. Then up came the following in BIG white letters across the screen: Aipotiurf contains 10% real juice. It seems only appropriate that the advertisement for the nicely bottled 10% real juice (which does make me wonder what the other 90% is composed of) was playing at Murder by Numbers as the movie contains approximately the same percentage of suspense.

Murder by Numbers follows two lonely, confused teens, who in an last ditch effort to gain attention, decide to murder someone. They plan things down to the smallest detail, how to pick their victim, how to ensure that they won't be leaving evidence behind, even an innocent to take the blame. They just don't count on a policewoman with empathy to the extreme, and street smarts coming out of her ears entering the picture.

Sandra Bullock (Practical Magic, A Time to Kill) stars as the tough policewoman. This role is an intrepid move for Bullock as she is best loved for her roles as the sweetheart, and Cassie Mayweather is anything but. She is abrasive to her co-workers, and keeps everyone at an emotional arms length to avoid being hurt. Her character is an obviously astute woman, well grounded in literature (if the books on her houseboat wall are anything to go by) and forensic knowledge. Bullock has definitely done her homework here in the fields of pathology, and in the hierarchy involved in being a member of the police force, as she has mastered the tough facade, being forceful enough to get other officers attention, and is able to toss around terms one might hear at an autopsy, as easily as I order my morning coffee. (I was, however bothered by her unfortunate tendency to go careening into darkened environments all by herself.) The touch that's especially nice here is that Bullock never allows Mayweather to become stone cold as so many capable actresses have done to tough female roles before her. Julianne Moore's turn in Hannibal made Clarice Starling an unbelievable character. While Starling's quality of being exceptionally brave is something an audience could admire, her complete lack of sympathy, or indeed any amiable human emotion was not. Bullock's Mayweather on the other hand, is tough when she has to be, empathetic enough to not only slip into the mind of the victim, but of the two boys as well, and brave enough to let fear shine through without worrying about the impression it might leave on someone else. Cassie Mayweather is a marvellous role in an unfortunately mediocre movie.

Murder by Numbers, doesn't add up. All Rights Reserved.The only way to have made Murder by Numbers an effective film would have been for the two central characters in the story, Richard Hayworth, and Justin Pendleton to have been portrayed by incredible talents . These roles needed to be infused with enough eeriness, enough of a slimy demeanour, enough of a psychosis to make their insanity believable, and the actors portraying them don't even come close to making the audience uneasy. Ryan Gosling (Remember the Titans, The Believer) plays the manic Hayworth and of the two boys, Gosling is the one making all the effort to make his role perfectly duplicitous. However, there are some problems with his performance; the major one being that he spends 99.9% of his onscreen time attempting to prove an old adage: "The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made" Gosling is such an ineffectual con artist that it takes actors with the skills of Bullock and Ben Chaplin to make it seem as though they could possibly be surprised when they uncover he has been less than honest with them..

Hayworth's moments of possessiveness over Pendleton, are well done, and in the hands of a stronger actor might have been melded into the outline of a confused young boy. You would have been able to see that he regretted what he had done, and was overcompensating by being excessively needy and controlling. Gosling should have given life to a character brash to all others but Pendleton, as Pendleton would have been the only character to understand him, his guilt feelings, and his need for control. This role required Gosling to be able to express a camouflage of barbarity over a core of dread at the thought of being found out. Gosling, to be fair, does show glimmers of all this in sparse onscreen moments, but never brings it to light in a consistent manner. 

You can genuinely see the character that Michael Pitt (Finding Forrester, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) was trying to create in Justin Pendleton. The expression-less voice and the malice in his every glance did have the capacity to get under your skin. Unfortunately Pitt either doesn't have the skills to make Pendleton as creepy as he needed to be, or just wasn't being pushed hard enough, because there was no point (that I can single out at the very least) where one finds themselves becoming leery of him. Having a quasi-everykid persona in this movie was a good plan. After all, who amongst us doesn't have a memory of a student in a class that we pursued that was curiously intelligent, but never spoke to anyone? The idea that the quiet kid in science class that you yourself might have teased could be the same person smart and angry enough to snatch you off the street and get away with it is paranoia inducing to say the least. In Murder by Numbers Pitt is the one showing all the potential. Pitt is the intelligent one sitting back quietly, reading book upon book of criminal technique, and forensic investigation, but his character descends from the silent power, to the valley of whine to quickly. It just never gels together that a kid who is not only tops in his class, can spew out a step by step manual for a homicide investigation would also be silly enough to hang around with a character like Hayworth, with whom he has absolutely nothing in common. Pitt, sadly, just never quite effectively pulls off the role of either (a) the brains of the operation or (b) an immature psychotic. Neither Gosling nor Pitt performed up to the level that Murder by Numbers needed them to, letting the movie and the audience down.

Ben Chaplin (Lost Souls, The Thin Red Line) appears in an interesting choice of role, that of Mayweather's partner; Sam Kennedy. I'm impressed by Chaplin taking this role on, as it is not only a secondary character, but also one governed entirely by that of his female partner. Kennedy is a character who is staunch in his ethics, smart in his police work, but marvellously doesn't stick beside her blindly, expressing doubts in her abilities. His detective's personality is captivating, able to take direction from Cassie, but never seeming wishy-washy. It's interesting to watch the role reversal in this film, as Kennedy is in the typical "female" type role here; being second in command, being confused over romantic intentions, leaning on another for support. Yet another excellent performance by Chaplin.

Until seeing Murder by Numbers I had thought the director Barbet Schroeder (Desperate Measures) to be an excellent captain of mystery movies. After all, his Single White Female was a ridiculously scary film. Murder by Numbers, his latest effort, doesn't succeed at doing anything but making the audience wish that Schroeder had created a more vibrant universe more Mayweather and Kennedy to investigate. Worth a rent on your local video store's discount night, but not much else.

Jen Johnston
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