Taking a page from Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold,
as well as lovers/murderers Leopold and Loeb, "Murder By Numbers"
tells the story of teenagers Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling) and Justin
Pendleton (Michael Pitt), who decide to randomly choose a victim and
kill them. The question of what brings them to commit such a heinous
act is made in a psychological thriller that is as thoroughly involving
and taut as it is intelligently written by Tony Gayton and directed
by Barbet Schroeder (1998's "Desperate Measures").
At school, the self-assured Richard and introverted Justin do not
associate with each other. But after hours, they have a twisted bond
with one another that goes beyond a normal "best friend" relationship.
With Richard an ace manipulator and Justin highly studied in forensic
procedures, they make a plan to brutally murder a nameless face off
the street and see if they can get away with it. Assigned to the case
is skilled police detective Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) and
rookie partner Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin). When all evidence points
to high school janitor Ray (Chris Penn), Sam believes that the murder
has been solved. Cassie is not so sure, however, growing more and
more suspicious of Justin and Richard, whom she has a gut feeling
are somehow involved. Meanwhile, in working on the case, Cassie is
finally forced into facing a deep, dark secret from her own past.
"Murder By Numbers" is a skillfully woven motion picture that cuts
back and forth between the individual stories of Cassie and Sam, and
Richard and Justin, until they inevitably collide. About equal time
is spent with all of these characters, each one a satisfyingly fleshed-out
and wholly believable creation. Director Barbet Schroeder wisely does
not treat Richard and Justin as one-dimensional villains, but paints
them as humanistic, flawed, and dangerous. Likewise, the cryptic inner
turmoil Cassie is going through is deliberately uncovered as the film
progresses, deepening the difficult emotions that have built up inside her over the years.
Lead actor Sandra Bullock (2000's "Miss Congeniality"), who also executive
produces, so often is viewed as a comedic actress that some viewers
don't stop to realize what a focused and talented thespian she truly
is. In the role of Cassie Mayweather, Bullock has encountered one
of the darkest characters she has ever been asked to play, and she
handles it with a seriousness and realism that seems genuine. As partner-turned-possible-love-interest
Sam Kennedy, Ben Chaplin (2002's "Birthday Girl") is less notable,
if only because his character seems like more of a device to aid Cassie
in her personal self-discovery.
As good as Bullock is, fresh young actors Ryan Gosling (2000's "Remember
the Titans") and Michael Pitt (2001's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch")
steal the show as Richard and Justin. Both Gosling and Pitt have the
demure, sophistication, and overwhelming screen presence of an actor
twice their age. They sink into their collective roles, too, with
Gosling making Richard a forcefully alluring and calm psychotic, and
Pitt turning Justin into a young man who, for all of his intelligence,
fails to recognize the horrible choices he makes before it is too
late. Most intriguingly of all, Richard and Justin are portrayed as
otherwise normal high school seniors who have fallen to the wayside
due to unsatisfying home lives and wealthy, uninvolved parents.
Unlike the recent Jodie Foster suspenser "Panic Room," "Murder By
Numbers" moves at a purposefully slow pace that draws the viewer into
the plot and characters, gets them to care about their fates, and
then leads them to a thought-provoking finale that packs a wallop.
While the film doesn't always surprise with its story developments,
some of which can admittedly be telegraphed in advance, it is never
anything less than a smart, thrilling, disturbing entertainment.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman