Murder By Numbers


“Murder By Numbers” is a crime drama/thriller that took me by surprise. Expecting a rather cookie-cutter police whodunit, I was pleased that the movie had several much more interesting facets.

I want to keep the plot summary here bare bones, both to avoid being a spoiler, and because the movie’s most interesting feature is the characters, rather than the storyline.

The four major players are split into two camps. Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin are Cassie and Sam, detectives assigned to work a homicide in which a Jane Doe has been strangled and dumped near a river. Cassie is the experienced veteran, and Sam is the rookie working his first homicide.

Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt are Richard and Justin, two teenage miscreants with a connection to the crime. This connection is clear immediately, for we are the omniscient viewer who sees both the detective’s world and the teen’s. The two groups merge as the investigation proceeds, and it becomes clear that rather than a whodunit, we have a howdunit, whydunit and can-we-prove theydunit.

The movie takes the time to give us some eccentric and complex characters to hang the story on. Cassie is a brash, sometimes humorless cop who takes no flak, and has a tendency to relate too much to her victims. She has a traumatic past which we learn of in bits and pieces, and her present life is fairly dysfunctional. She is a good detective, but her interpersonal skills stink, as she lets people think they are close to her, only to push them away, leaving them confused and bitter. She seems unable to honestly deal with any of her personal relationships. Sandra Bullock gets a chance to show us some heretofore unused acting skills, as this is a more troubled and complicated character than the lighter fare which is her norm. Her character is a self sufficient (albeit messed up) woman and the movie never puts her in a submissive or passive role. She has top billing in this movie, and earns it.

Ben Chaplin plays a less well developed Sam. His character is similar in some ways to the one he played in “Birthday Girl”. Sort of hapless, basically clueless, but a good guy with potential who learns fast. He manages some rare insights into Cassie, and she does a good job of letting bits and pieces of tenderness and vulnerability through her usual armor.

Our miscreant teens have a fascinating relationship. It’s all about power and control. Richard has them, and Justin wants them. An intriguing aspect to this straightforward power play is that Richard needs Justin, and is jealous and possessive of others vying for his time and attention. He’s quite the stalker and masterfully manipulates Justin, most of the time. He’s like an obsessive lover who doesn’t like to lose his complete dominance, but we don’t know if the boy’s relationship is physically sexual. The movie is either deliberately obtuse about this aspect of the relationship, or the filmmakers chose not to develop this and left us only with hints and speculation. Regardless, they engage in a fascinating tug of war over their increasingly complicated situation and relationship. Gosling does a nice job as the budding (arguably full blown) sociopath, and Pitt is equal to the task of portraying Justin as used, user, submissive, dominant, betrayed and confused. Quite an accomplishment for this type of movie.

As for the storyline, there are definitely some too easy investigative leaps, as well as something of a movie of the week ending of epiphany and recovery. I would have preferred epiphany leading to self insight as the beginning of recovery rather than having a character work out a lifetime of trauma within a single scene.

The tone of the movie is really set within the characters, and generally works. Director Barbet Schroeder gets quite a bit of mileage out of both the movie and the characters. The movie is well paced, the score unremarkable. The cinematography generally adds little to the tone, with one very large exception. There is a fabulous shot of an old house hugging the edge of a bluff over the ocean. This is the first shot we see, and we are treated to several more views of the same locale. It’s a gem of a location and beautifully shot.

Overall, “Murder by Numbers” is a crime drama/thriller which is elevated by the development of characters and relationships. Worth seeing in general as a passable story, but made far better by added depth. I would have rated this 3 1/2 stars were that an option.

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