Sandra Bullock's 21st-century detective in Murder by Numbers despises love with a rare fervor.
Why is a question director Barbet Schroeder and writer Tony Gayton shrewdly leave hanging for a good while. At first, Murder by Numbersworks up a spooky, compelling murder story. From the first, we're made aware that two "exceptional" high school students (The Believer's Ryan Gosling and Hedwig and the Angry Inch's Michael Pitt), precocious nihilists modeled on the 1920s thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, have chosen a stranger at random and put her to death.
When the police follow the standard clues—hairs, fibers, boot prints, estimated time of death—they find themselves going in circles. Cassie (short, one would hope, for Cassandra), the chief investigator, argues that this blind trail fits no ordinary murder profile because the killer or killers seem to have read up on the conventional psychologies and to be deliberately taunting their pursuers with false clues. Her superiors (who call Cassie "The Hyena" behind her back, a reference to the female of that species' false penis) think her theory is far-fetched and throw obstacles in her way when her hunches lead her to stalking the pampered sons of some high-powered locals.
So far, so traditional. Then the movie takes a welcome detour as Cassie breaks in her straight-laced new partner (Ben Chaplin), pulling him into bed with her at the end of their first day on the job together. This is such a surprising and pleasing departure from the puritanism that has afflicted relations between men and women in so many recent Hollywood movies, you might half-ask yourself, "Is this a foreign film?" And the answer would be yes, sort of. The Tehran-born, cosmopolitan, globetrotting Schroeder (from Uganda in the documentary Idi Amin Dada, to downtown Los Angeles in Charles Bukowski's Barfly, to Brazil in last year's Our Lady of the Assassins) is a natural to protect this most adventurous—and vital—dimension of Gayton's script. In the same breath that it turns the difficult partnership between Bullock and Chaplin into something like a relationship the viewer might actually remember from his or her own life, it advances the most interesting dimension of the film—the riddle of this woman's personality—with a force that feels effortless. We're less in suspense over how (or if) the killers will be caught than we are over the question of just who this tough, hedonistic detective is.
Unfortunately, as the preoccupation with catching the bad guys becomes more pronounced, this more fascinating potential is relegated to the back seat. Even as the psychological interdependencies of the two boys take the foreground, the movie gets more and more crowded with fun-house surprises and cliffhanging set pieces, when what might have served the story better is a moment in which the detective sees herself in either or both of the boys, even though she has to take them down. It says much in favor of Gayton and Schroeder's craft that these repugnant, cold-blooded young heavies do achieve a measure of poignancy—one gets the sense that neither had much of a chance against the demons driving him—yet that spark of insight never really jumps from them to the movie's heroine and, through her, to us.
Murder By Numbers was directed by Barbet Schroeder; screenplay written by Tony Gayton; and stars Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin. Now playing countywide.