Review: “Murder by Numbers”

A surprisingly enjoyable if somewhat derivative and ‘by the numbers’ so to speak serial killer thriller, “Murder By Numbers” has enough good elements about it to keep it from being boring but still treads very familiar and well-worn ground. The twist with this one is that you know who the killers are right from the start and the film focuses nearly equal time on both the cops investigating the case who are catching up on what we’ve learned so far, and the killers themselves initially smug in the ingeniousness of their scheme which gradually becomes a slowly unwinding fear as the cops get closer and closer to the real truth. It’s the Leopold/Loeb murder case on film (done before in films like Hitchcock’s “Rope”), but this time between two high school students played quite well by Ryan Gosling as the spunky jock and Michael Pitt as the smart loner. Both are talented actors who’ve delivered far better performances in their short careers so far, but they help lift otherwise generic material above average and easily outshine their more senior counterparts – Gosling especially will walk away from this with several new fans and could easily become one of the next ‘hot things’ in Hollywood. The term Sandra Bullock drama is usually never a good sign – “28 Days”, “Hope Floats”, “In Love and War”, “The Net”, etc. Bullock has been serviceable but rather ordinary in each of her past efforts at being serious. Thankfully here she delivers a solid performance in a heroine role that’s flawed, professional, charming and engaging but never stretches herself too far. Some of her internal conflicts come out a little contrived, but she tries her best with what she’s got and it shows. Her sexual chemistry with partner Ben Chaplin is lackluster, but they play off each other well in their more professional scenes and form a believable pair of cops on a case, both have yet to really lock in a dramatic performance to be proud of yet.

This is a character drama first and foremost and the interaction between them all holds up well, especially some great scenes between Bullock and Gosling, whilst the locale allows for some picturesque settings all leading to a very ‘Final Analysis’-style ending (which actually seems out of place as up till that point it’s a rather intimate little drama/thriller).

The pacing on the other hand is a little choppy and admittedly the film takes a little while to get going (and suffers from some over editing at times). Other times certain things seem left undeveloped or just not well planned out ranging from Bullock’s very cliche back story, to a whole subtle gay undertone between Gosling & Pitt – whilst other elements seem left deliberately unclear (such as the dominant role in the boys relationship). The character study of the killers never goes deep enough to encounter something meaningful, but Schroeder’s directing is confident and the very elaborate and complicated staging sequences for the murder are well shot and rarely get confusing.

In a few ways this reminds me of last year’s “The Caveman’s Valentine”, a slow-paced investigatory drama which has some good actors/characters (incl. an eccentric lead, a likable female supporting character and a young hunk newcomer). It is well shot and has an interesting idea behind it, but the end result is muddled, inconsistent and doesn’t gel as much as it aims to. Still, like that film I found this a better than expected time passer and it will please Sandra fans.