Back Add a Comment Share:
Facebook Button
Introduction
Girl power is indeed making an impact in Hollywood: along with Reese Witherspoon and Blighty’s own Jane Leeves (she of Frasier fame, no less), Sandra Bullock has formed her own production company. With Murder By Numbers being the first creation while wearing her producer’s hat, can the girl once voted “Most likely to brighten your day” cut it in the world of the movie mogul?

Movie
In a dilapidated house, formerly a splendid residence, perched high above the waves on a coastal cliff, two teenagers, the ungainly awkward Justin (Michael Pitt) and rich kid Richard (Ryan Gosling), drink absinthe, swap pledges and plot. They propose to do something grandiose, something to set them apart from other high school kids (although they are already ‘different’ enough with Justin the class geek and Richard the spoiled superstar every other boy wants to be) and the world is soon to find out.

When the body of a young woman is found on the bank of a stream wrapped in plastic, it marks the beginning of a seriously bad day for Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin). Just transferred from the vice department, this is his first case in the homicide division and he’s been paired with the most fearsome detective in the squad, Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock).  Nicknamed the ‘hyena’, Cassie is abrupt, impolite and antagonistic; everything that the softly spoken Sam is not. Affording him no respect, it’s up to Sam to prove his worth from the word go as Cassie constantly rebuffs his ideas and suggestions.

Murder By Numbers
However, after her initial hostility, Cassie seems to warm to Sam and seduces him, only to kick him out of her bed as soon as the deed is done. Disillusioned and more than a little confused by Cassie’s erratic emotional outbursts, Sam sets out to solve the case from under her nose so as to be assigned a different partner as soon as possible.

Yet as the case progresses and the two teenagers begin leading the police by the nose on a murderous merry dance, Sam is increasingly concerned about Cassie’s behaviour and her mysterious involvement with a forthcoming parole hearing. Drawn to Justin and Richard’s high school, all the available evidence would appear to implicate the facility’s janitor (Chris Penn) who suddenly goes missing.

With his partner’s instability more pronounced, which forces her expulsion from the case, Sam must make a decision as to whether to disobey his chief’s orders to back Cassie’s hunch or let the seemingly solved case lie...

As you may have deduced from the above synopsis, Murder By Numbers is an efficient little potboiler of a crime movie with some affectionate nods to the ‘hard boiled’ thrillers of the Bogart era. In fact, this is most obviously displayed in the central relationship of Cassie and Sam. What makes this movie different, as Schroeder acknowledges in his accompanying commentary, is that the Bogart/Bacall dynamic here is reversed; Bullock is the decidedly damaged detective protecting her emotional insecurity with barbed quips, Chaplin is the doe eyed love interest tagging along.

Indeed, Chaplin is quite outstanding with a marvellously mannered performance, effortlessly escaping the limits of the thinly written characterisation with a full range of tics. Even acutely nailing an American accent, one hopes, after proving he can carry comedy in The Truth About Cats And Dogs and his standout showing his The Thin Red Line, this role will open more doors in Hollywood for him.

Murder By Numbers
Conversely, Sandra Bullock made a giant gamble with this role, excluding the lamentably laughable 28 Days, and the gamble nearly pays off. Despite having the showier role with the opportunity to fight, cry in emotive breakdowns (several times) and succumb to eerie flashbacks, Bullock can’t quite quash the good girl next door image. It’s impossible not to applaud her intentions (Meg Ryan, were you watching?) and if she hadn’t been unfortunately upstaged by Chaplin her performance would undoubtedly have attracted more attention.

Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt make a good fist of their roles as the teenage terrors, despite conspicuously looking far too old to be genuine high school seniors. Perhaps concerned in the wake of Columbine (the director admits in his commentary to a scheduling switch after losing his original high school location prompted by the relevant education authority’s fears surrounding the movie’s content), Schroeder consciously steered away from younger (or certainly younger looking) actors although this remains open to question.

Also up for debate is the homoerotic subtext between Richard and Justin; no mention of this is made in the commentary and in no way is the relationship consummated in the film. This aspect, and how it relates to the murder itself, remains open ended. As a result, it’s difficult to grasp the motivation behind the killing; a few explanations are offered (they’re rich, bored and lack parental guidance, “orphans with credit cards” as Cassie labels them), but none really add up to satisfy the audience.

Murder By Numbers
This presents a potential stumbling block as the identity of the killers is made clear just 27 minutes into the movie (if you haven’t seen the trailer, that is), leaving the narrative’s remaining 90 minutes to concern itself with the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the crime. As the ‘why’ element is not resolved, this leaves a lot of time spent dissecting the circumstances of the killing. Featuring meticulous planning, a voyeuristic videotaping fetish to record all the heinous events as they occur and dispassionate, almost flippant, selection of the victim, this section of the movie will be disturbing to some and plain distressing to others.

With some judicious trimming, this could have been a lean little thriller. As it is, the distended third act feels too long with too little action in reaching the denouement. However, Schroeder is striving to do something different within the cloying confines of the genre and perhaps we should forgive him on account of his effort.

Video
As you might expect from a Warner Brothers new release, Murder By Numbers, anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.85:1, benefits from a bright and sharp transfer with strong colours (suitably stark in the brooding grey police station and pleasantly warm in the sepia-like flashback sequences) and decent contrast levels. Shadow detail is good, along with reasonably deep blacks in the nighttime scenes.

There are touches of grain in a couple of scenes, although this is minor at worst, and the print is otherwise free from dust marks and scratches. To be honest, I was expecting a little more from the visual presentation but the fact that it isn’t going to blow your socks off is probably more greatly due to Schroeder’s bland palette and the low key nature of the narrative rather than imperfections with the transfer itself.

Audio
The audio too remains somewhat unusually subdued; throughout the movie it’s difficult to detect anything from the rear channels at all safe for the faint echoes of a few structural creaks and waves crashing in the climactic mano e mano balcony confrontation between Cassie and Richard. That said, channel separation is effective and aural flashbacks are dealt with neatly with muted or distorted voices seeping from either of the front two speakers. Dialogue is pin sharp and well placed in the mix not to overpower the subtle stillness of silences that Schroeder has consciously inserted into the repartee his characters share.

Murder By Numbers
Extras
The surprisingly slim special features slate kicks off with a commentary from director Barbet Schroeder and editor Lee Percy. Opening with a shot by shot deconstruction of the sequence which introduces Justin and Richard, this sets the tone and style of the commentary with Schroeder preferring to discuss the technical aspects of camera set ups or lighting, leaving Percy to take the lead with anecdotal information. In fact, if it weren’t for Schroeder’s thick European brogue, you could be forgiven for becoming confused as to who was the director and who was the editor.

That said, there are some interesting nuggets of information here, particularly regarding why Schroeder likes to use unbroken crane and steadicam shots to preserve a sense of continuity and fluency within locations or the inverse Bogart and Bacall nature of the Cassie/Sam central relationship. Of note too is the relative fluidity of the approach of Schroeder and Percy to their film making, the pair illustrating just how radically the finished print differed in structure to the shooting script. Indeed, it’s a valuable guide as to the way in which a mainstream Hollywood movie, even with a moderate budget, can be assembled in an editing suite rather than on the set. On several occasions Percy makes reference to excised or expanded scenes to appear on this DVD. With his detailed explanations making plain as to why each sequence was trimmed or dropped in its entirety, it’s mystifying as to why the footage has not made it to disc’s release.

While the commentary does not lack coherence, it’s certainly patchy with frequent short pauses and one is left with the impression that for all his enthusiasm for technical terminology Schroeder would rather leave the audience to dissect the narrative without supplying too many clues.

The film’s trailer is the only other extra to be included. Standard Hollywood fare, clocking in at 2 minutes, it establishes the principal characters and the genre very succinctly although if you’re yet to see the movie you’ll be left in no doubt as to who’s behind the murder.

The commentary and trailer are accessed by a static menu system, supplemented by a loop of moody music from the film.

Murder By Numbers
Overall
It’s a touch too long and the murderous motivation is muddled. Why then should you take a chance on this movie? Well, you’d miss Chaplin teaching elder and more esteemed American colleagues how it should be done while Bullock and co. have taken great pains in attempting to avoid fashioning the standard slick ‘thriller by numbers’ that studio execs like to see churned out. It’s not the most revolutionary or electrifying thriller you’re liable to experience but deciding to be different is no bad thing; presented on an average disc from Warner for a comparatively cheap price, there are many more undeserving movies available for your notes.


Links: