Film
cover art

Murder By Numbers

Director: Barbet Schroeder
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Chris Penn, Agnes Bruckner

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 19 Apr 2002; 2002)

One-two punch

Partway through Murder by Numbers, Seattle homicide detective Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) tries to make up with her newbie partner and (already) one-night stand, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin). Ironically, he’s come by her houseboat after work, where he finds her wrapped in an afghan throw, eating Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk cookies out the bag, and watching Matlock on tv. At first, she won’t speak to him, mad that he dissed her in front of their captain. But soon she’s trying to rekindle a little of that one-nightness. As he sits upright and anxious in an armchair, she slips her bare foot up under his leg. He looks alarmed. She smiles, sweetly, then wiggles her toes you know where. As Keanu might say, Whoa.


By turns sly, needy, tough, vulnerable, and not a little twisted, Cassie isn’t exactly the Sandy Bullock role you might be expecting. Nor is Murder By Numbers the usual Sandy Bullock vehicle. Indeed, and to her credit, it appears that Bullock has been rethinking that whole America’s Sweetheart thing. No doubt, she’s been grateful for the leg up it gave her early on, because you know she’s just that way, humble and appreciative, not to mention talented and brainy. Plus, she sang the Oscar Mayer Weiner song and kissed Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man, a one-two punch that precious few might have managed.


But still, after stealing the show in Speed, being lumped in with Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, well, it must get frustrating if you feel like you have something else going on (and you know she does). And so, like Meg and Julia, Sandy’s taken to pushing the edges of what people expect from her, doing the wholesome thing when she must, but looking for alternatives when she can. (That said, no one can say what dementia possessed everyone involved with Speed 2.)


More often than not, of course, the hardworking Bullock is compelled to do combinations, of the Sweetheart and Something Else: an adorable computer nerd in The Net (1995), adorable witch in Practical Magic (1998), adorable wild child who does not, thank god, get Ben Affleck in Forces of Nature (1999), adorable alcoholic in 28 Days (2000). And even if you overlook the awful Gun Shy (2000), it’s worth mentioning that she executive produced it and the decently melodramatic Hope Floats (1998) and produced Miss Congeniality (2000), one of her biggest successes. (Bullock is also currently executive producing tv’s George Lopez Show, which only underlines that she has more on her mind than lifelong Sweetheart Stardom.)


Murder by Numbers (which again, and no coincidence, Bullock also executive produced) revisits and refits the combinatory strategy, but times two. For one thing, Cassie is working both a familiar, emotionally harrowing melodrama and a standard male movie-cop’s trajectory, as in: the angry/damaged/ruined hero triumphs over his terrible past. Moreover, the murder she must solve is multilayered and messy. (In fact, the solution unravels pretty seriously by film’s end, what with a few easy-to-spot twists, some shooting in a creepy house, and a breakaway balcony from which Cassie must dangle perilously.)


This murder involves the dead young woman, with whom Cassie doesn’t exactly identify (but with whom she feels mighty empathy), and her arrogant, foolish psycho-killers. These would be two homoerotically charged-up high schoolers, Richard (Ryan Gosling, stunning in The Believer) and Justin (Michael Pitt, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Bully), looking to commit the flawless crime. And they’re perfectly “straight,” of course, even fighting over the same not-so-bright golden girl Lisa (Agnes Bruckner). Still, the movie goes predictably overboard to underline their pathology. And so, the urge to homicide is piled up with an urge to love each other (as they love themselves) a little too much: they share teary embraces, ritual chants, a sense of being abandoned by distracted/absent parents, and most importantly, a belief that they are superior, and only they can meet one another’s needs.


Their similarities, no surprise, are matched by their differences, and so, tensions arise. Justin is the behind the scenes brain, always researching (and even reads books, which he burns, sensationally, to destroy “evidence”). Richard is the out-front “star,” seducing, cajoling, performing because he loves to do it and always wins. In their lair, a house up on “the bluff” miles from nowhere, they frame and revere a digital composite portrait of themselves as one person. Or, they do until they fall out, whereupon Justin breaks up the image with a grand flourish on his fancy machine. It’s the chanting and the embracing though, that secure their place as Leopold and Loeb Lite, with a few additional edges to make them look “contemporary,” more Columbineish than Bates Motelish.


For one thing, they know they can be profiled and tracked by forensic evidence, and would never do something so sloppy as leave a pair of glasses at the body-dump site. They go one more step, beyond leaving no evidence: they leave “counter-evidence”—a carpet fiber, a baboon hair—in order to thwart the lab team. Hence Cassie’s exclamation, so prominent in the trailer, “The profile doesn’t fit the profile!” Just so: Justin and Richard’s “contemporary” lies primarily with their understanding of technology and process, more or less common knowledge for anyone who watches tv or surfs the web. They’re like the rest of us, unprofiled. Clearly, Justin knew to do his research because he’d seen a few episodes of C.S.I. or something like it.


And their primary gimmick would be great tv: when committing the murder, they wrap themselves up in plastic, like Ethan Hawke in Gattaca, to keep from dropping incriminating skin cells and hairs. But while these suits and goggles are crafty, they’re also comical, as the boys lumber like a couple of Diver Dans through several crime scenes in flashbacks (as they move the victim from one place to another), and then through multiple versions of those flashbacks. Real, not real, remembered, not remembered—the effect is part spooky, part wacky.


In the peculiar universe laid out in Murder By Numbers, such refraction—of time and motive, fear and desire—makes a certain sense. The kids have no parents to speak of (Justin’s mom appears to be propped up in the living room at one point), Cassie orders up lab tests on ill-gotten garbage without even a nod to, say, protocol or legality. Basically, the cops do whatever they want when they want, like skulk around at the high school to make the suspects “nervous,” or bust into the home of Richard’s randy pot dealer (Chris Penn, sort of playing Dennis Hopper in River’s Edge, only not as well).


It’s probably best not to look too closely at just how all this works. Justin and Richard are bad because they can be; Cassie’s good because she wills herself to be, and Sam, well, poor Sam has a bit of a ride to endure, and not much else to do but observe and harrumph a little about everyone’s bad behavior. Cassie keeps calling him “Vice,” because that’s the department from which he’s just transferred, and after a while, the name just seems to fit. That is, Vice is less of a character than a plot point, and like Keanu Reeves, Jason Patrick, Harry Connick Jr., even Viggo Mortenson before him, Chaplin sort of falls off the screen when in range of the Sandy B death-ray. It’s not that she’s mean or selfish, no way. She’s not even a knock-your-socks-off performer. It’s that she’s more compelling to watch than most all her costars. I mean, she even gave Benjamin Bratt a run for his money.


Cassie’s more vibrant relationships by far involve Justin and Richard, which naturally makes her a megathreat the boys must destroy at all costs. Equally pretty but differently socially abled (Richard is rich and “popular,” though you never see him with any friends, and Justin is brilliant and geeky, though he seems perfectly adept when he gets his chance with Lisa) the boys are immediate suspects in the crime. But the film isn’t about solving the case; it’s about solving Cassie.


So, while snarky Richard pushes her personal buttons (she’s got a dark secret that starts getting telegraphed early, in echoey sound flashbacks and deeply shadowed visual ones), Justin beguiles her with his vulnerability. She sees Richard as she sees others (the rich pricks of her own youth) and broody Justin as she sees herself (his philosophy class paper on “crime” as a means to freedom intrigues her, even though she and he both know the premise is morally unsound).


This three-way, so damaged and difficult (and so neatly imaged through cop interrogation room mirrors) is easily the film’s most potent and potentially disquieting idea, even if it stops short of actually investigating what the deal might be between an adult woman cop and her teen boy suspects. All three actors bring something serious to this table, and their interactions are unnerving in any number of ways, until, of course, the movie’s speedy descent into big-finale nonsense. Before then, the three-way is a great, disturbing idea, recalling the best of Barbet Schroeder’s great, disturbing work (Reversal of Fortune, Our Lady of the Assassins). And it’s a complex mishmash of longing and dread that this movie—aiming for mainstream box-office—just isn’t going to consider deeply.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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