Rated R - Running Time: 2:01 - Released 4/19/02

A taut, emotional thriller of the Silence Of The Lambs variety is Murder By Numbers, which combines the talents of Iranian-born arthouse director Barbet Schroeder and novice writer Tony Gayton. It stars Sandra Bullock as a detective who discovers there is more to a routine murder case than first meets the eye. The character is not your typical good cop; she's got various issues and makes some questionable decisions, but Bullock generally pulls it off so that we can at least identify. The film also stars two young men, Michael Pitt (Dawson's Creek) and Ryan Gosling, who are impressive as the film's two villains, although the occasionally overwrought script sometimes asks them to do some pretty outrageous things and the final reel gets more unvelievable as it unspools. Also present is Ben Chaplin, who continues his characterization from Lost Souls; i.e., bored, confused, and unaware of what movie he's in.

The film, which despite its title and poster design really doesn't have much to do with numbers, centers around two California high school students, awkward genius Justin Pendleton (Pitt) and his charming and popular friend, Richard Haywood (Gosling), who decide to see if, by careful planning, they can kill someone without being caught. Their desire to do this is founded on Justin's philosophical conjecture that the only way to really experience freedom is to commit crime without facing the consequences. After meticulously studying forensics and criminal investigation, they select a victim at random and do the deed, not only being sure to avoid leaving any evidence of their guilt, but introducing other clues designed to throw the authorities off the trail.

The authorities in this case are veteran criminal profiler Cassie Mayweather (Bullock) and her new partner, Sam Kennedy (Chaplin). Although Cassie is both experienced and intuitive, she seems to be suffering from some kind of emotional/psychological problem related to an event in her past which occasionally clouds her judgment. As the case progresses, she and Sam interview Justin and Richard; they seem innocent and their pre-arranged clues work perfectly, drawing Sam into suspecting another man (Chris Penn), who apparently took his own life soon after the murder. But Cassie can't get Richard's oily charm and arrogant attitude out of her mind, and despite protestations from Sam and the chief (R.D. Call) to let it rest, she continues the investigation on her own hunches and at her own expense, partially spurred on by the images that plague her memory.

This is generally an effective movie; it is overly long, and the pace sometimes seems to slow to a standstill, but director Schroeder ensures that the tension is always there. The script by Gayton goes from being intense and dark to overcomplicated, and sometimes seems too intelligent for its own good. Bullock's character is complex; she's not exactly the kind of protagonist we can always get behind, and this is an important point—the film suffers from the lack of likable characters. Helping marginally to counteract this is 17-year-old Agnes Bruckner, who plays a small but crucial role as the girl whose connection to both boys helps Cassie put it all together. Chaplin, meanwhile, is easily the least engaging person in the flick; even though he's supposed to be one of the good guys, he's as wooden as ever. The literal cliffhanger ending is far too overblown to be convincing, but most of what comes before it deserves praise. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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