Today’s Prayer Focus

Murder By Numbers

MPA Rating: R-Rating (MPA) for violence, language, a sex scene and brief drug use.

Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell

Moral Rating: Very Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:
Primary Audience: Adults
Genre: Mystery Thriller
Length: 2 hr.
Year of Release: 2002
USA Release:
Sandra Bullock in “Murder by Numbers”
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Featuring Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Agnes Bruckner, R.D. Call, Ryan Gosling
Director Barbet Schroeder
Producer Barbet Schroeder, Susan Hoffman, Richard Crystal
Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures. Trademark logo.
Warner Bros. Pictures
, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company

It’s funny how some movies can be totally unengaging and yet somewhat interesting at the same time. Such a movie is “Murder By Numbers”, a film about teenage thrill-killers. Like Alfred Hitchkock’s “Rope,” the film is about two intellectual young men in a homo-erotically charged relationship who are out to prove to themselves and to others that they are above the moral and criminal law.

Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt) and Richard Hayward (Ryan Gosling of the controversial film, “The Believers”) are teenagers who are too smart for their loveless, meaningless lives. To bring meaning to their lives, they plot a random murder. Being modern murderers, they are aware of all facets of forensics. They enjoy the game of murder and detective work—hence the titles murder by numbers. Their only joy is the joy of manipulating the detectives, Sam (Ben Chaplin) and Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock). But unknown to them, they are not up against a regular (read: sane) detective. They are pitted against the obsessive and troubled Cassie who “identifies” with the victim. We know these two will be brought to justice. We know Cassie has some heavy emotional issues. But hey, this is a Hollywood picture. We also know that all will be well in two hours.

“Murder By Numbers” is merely okay. The viewer is bored but not totally bored. And the reason for this lack of complete boredom is the portrayal of the nasty teenagers. I am forced to ask myself: why are murderous sickos made to be so attractive? Why can’t we keep our eyes off them? Why did the screenwriter give them the best lines and the best scenes? Why can’t the goodies be as exciting or as well-created? In fact, why are the good guys so banal with such typical Hollywood issues?

The utter neediness of weaselly wimpy Michael Pitt’s Justin Pendleton is more enthralling than the grief and pain of Sandra Bullock’s Cassie. The attractiveness of creepy Ryan Gosling’s Richard Hayward is more riveting than Ben Chaplin’s Sam. Even the sexual tension between both onscreen pairs feels more alive when we’re dealing with the baddies. What’s happening here? The film loses all its energy and impetus whenever the good guys are on the screen. We want Cassie to be healed of course. But we really really want Justin to be healed. For some reason, the bad guys are the stars of this film. I kept thinking of John Milton’s Paradise Lost where the bad guy, Satan, seems to steal the entire poem.

The film contains some interesting take on relationships. For instance, one of the boys kills someone who is something like his only parental figure. Everytime the murdered guy is mentioned, the teen killer’s eyes get teary. We feel for him because these kids have no parental figures. All their love, care, and honoring come from each other. One of them is even threatened by the relationship his friend develops with a classmate. In the real Leob and Leopold thrill killing, the two men were Jewish, rich, intellectual and homosexuals. And American criminal history is full of murders done by sexually-disturbed young men. These kids are rich, intellectual and sexually troubled. And any movie viewer knows that if one of these boys had had a girlfriend—forget mom and dad here—the murder would not have been committed. That said, I must add that gay folks in the audience might be slightly insulted by certain aspects of this movie.

It’s an okay movie. The story is neat and tidy. There are no loose threads (forensic or plot-wise) left dangling. That kind of neatness is fatal to a movie like this: once you get into the movie’s rhythm and structure, then you end up becoming a movie prophet: always in the know, always aware of the content and placement of each scene. It passes the time.

As Christians, we know that humans have a need for meaning. We also know that nature abhors a vacuum. People with no meaning in their lives will find something to make their lives meaningful. The more intelligent and spiritually uninformed people are, the more tempted they are to want to do grandiose accomplishments to make their lives meaningful. The teenagers live lives that are restricted in some ways and utterly devoid of structure in other ways. These kids come from home where love is meaningless—mom and dad are divorced and mom is always on the phone with her friends. It’s a kind of take on the Cinderella complex. Just as children from deprived families dream of making their lives better by marrying rich or becoming famous—because a regular life is not enough to heal the hurts of a destroyed childhood—so these kids must murder to give their lives meaning and to prove their existence. The film doesn’t want us to be on the side of these kids. And we aren’t. They’re creepy. But, somehow, they are the characters that interest us. And that is the fault of the screenwriters.

Other offensive content: Film has some graphic depiction of a corpse and some violence. Sex is implied and briefly shown a few times. Nudity is present in the form of female portraits (breasts are shown). Audio from a porn video can be heard in one scene. About 9 “f” words, plus about 7 instances of religious exclamations or profanities.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Neutral—This is a very intense, graphic movie. It depicts characters devoid of Christian values and subsequently making evil choices. One value in viewing this movie is the realistic perspective of the life of today’s teens. While most are not driven to the psychotic degree of these boys, many lack the foundation on which to build a godly life. The movie is a CSI-type; it offers detailed forensic information about two apparent murders. One is committed by two teenage-boys; the other has occurred in the past of Sandra Bullock, the main character who is a homicide detective. The movie involves the hunt for these boys and exposure of the excess and emptiness of their lives. The redeeming qualities of the movie are minimal, but include the need for support and relationship with others to grow as an individual. Facing one’s demons are necessary before moving on. Unfortunately, the movie does not include the vital relationship needed for growth—that with Jesus Christ. See it for interest and entertainment, and a reality check of our society. Do not see it for inspiration and warm fuzzies. Adults only.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 4]
Beth, age 39
Neutral—I went to see this movie with three friends. We all agreed that the movie wasn’t bad, but we wished we had picked another one. I wouldn’t recommend this as a top movie choice.
My Ratings: [Average / 3]
Craig, age 31
Negative—My Christian friends and I went into this one not knowing what we were getting into. After sitting through this 2hr. disturbing movie, we left feeling like we need to immerse ourselves with scripture to get clean. “Be careful little eyes what you see.” The characters in this movie were a little too close to the Columbine teens, which hit too close to home. The plot was basically this… Two very opposite social level disturbed teens, seeing if they could get away with a murder and point blame at the school janitor. I always enjoyed Sandra Bullock in movies but this one made me question her character after a semi graphic sex scene. There is another sex scene where a main character tapes himself having sex. The girl is totally unaware. Later the boy gives the tape to his friend to watch. I left feeling sick to my stomach… wishing I had never seen this one. Take my advice… If you wouldn’t feed yourself garbage don’t go see this one.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 3½]
Heather, age 20
Movie Critics
…a large number of obscenities and crude sexual comments… a graphic sex scene, although no nudity is shown…
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Comments from young people
Negative—I went and saw this movie with one of my close friends. Not only was the violent content surprising, but the depiction of all of the high school students was demoralizing. It seems that all movies involving teenagers make all kids our age out to be alcoholics that get a thrill out of sex and drunkenness. However, this is not the case. There are plenty of strong Christian teenagers. This movie was extremely graphic and scary. I was offended by the language, the sex, the violence, and the misconceptions of teenagers. I guess that’s what I get for going to a movie that is rated R. It seems like even PG movies these days are filled with these types of corruption!
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 3]
Elizabeth, age 17
Neutral—This movie is pretty average. It is about half an hour too long for its own good. However, it is also very representative of how the devil works in our lives. Richard, one of the two murderers, in essence convinces Justin, the smart one, that his life is insignificant, and he would kill himself if he were him. They go on to plot a murder. It isn’t until they realize the consequences of their actions that Richard becomes truly remorseful—but only because he got caught. On the other hand, Justin was very apprehensive, and even vomited in disgust at his actions—even though he thought we would not get caught for it. In Deuteronomy, God makes it clear: positive reinforcement works better than negative. When God listed the consequences of following him over not following him, the curses number about for times more than the blessings. About an hour and a half into the movie, we discover what the opening shot really leads to.

It seems pretty sad at that point, until you actually get there: ** spoiler ** Richard was actually going to let Justin shoot himself, whereas his gun had no bullets in it. That is when you realize, Richard, like the devil, is very charismatic and persuasive, but deep down is pure evil. He let Justin do the killing and take the punishment. None of it would have happened if Richard had not been there to hurt him. Justin had the idea, but Richard gave him the push out the door. A great shootout ensues, and Richard comes pretty close to killing Cassie, the main detective. Of course, Cassie doesn’t get killed, but the balcony nearly collapses, and guess what—Justin saves her, even though he has a chance to get away with his crimes. sort of like accepting Jesus Christ even though we know we can be persecuted and hated because of it.

Unfortunately, Cassie had no forgiveness in her heart. The movie paints a picture of no redemption. “You are only given one life, and it’s your choice what do with it.” I thought the ending was a downer. Like I said earlier, this movie is too long for its own good. They should have focused more on the “bad guys” than Cassie, because her character is boring and a little too “by the numbers.”
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 3]
Matt, age 15