Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Agnes Bruckner, R.D. Call, Ryan Gosling | Directed by: Barbet Schroeder | Produced by: Barbet Schroeder, Susan Hoffman, Richard Crystal | Written by: Tony Gayton | Distributor: Warner Brothers
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.