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ISSUE 115 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 4/26/2002

'Murder' killing viewers softly

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 26, 2002

“Murder by Numbers” suffers from the “hair gel” phenomenon: try to put in too much style, and the whole thing goes flat. Maybe not flat, but limp. Director Barbet Schroeder does a credible job of filling plot holes with unexpected twists and turns, but by the films' climax, I hardly cared what happened next. It plays out like an extra-long episode of “CSI.” The movie's main strength is Sandra Bullock's strong performance as Cassie, a scarred police investigator with a mysterious past. In a nod to Alfred Hitchcock's “Rope,” two teenage freaks plot a murder just for thrills. When they actually follow through with the plan, Cassie is called to the scene, along with her newbie partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin). Several clues found at the crime scene, including a footprint and a vomit sample, lead the investigators to question the pair: Richard (Ryan Gosling of “Young Hercules” fame), a suave, slick and slimy charmer who can manipulate just about anybody; and Justin (Michael Pitt, kind of a scary Leonardo DiCaprio), a seemingly naive brainiac drawn in by Richard's seductive ego. Since Richard and Justin are smarter than they look, they throw Cassie and Sam into enough zig-zaggy wrong turns to lead to another man’s arrest. While Sam is satisfied with the outcome, Cassie won't close the book on the case – even when she gets pressure from the honchos upstairs. Bullock's air of defiance is what makes Cassie interesting  she's blunt and harsh, but oddly vulnerable at the same time. She pulls Sam into bed faster than he can resist, yet she literally pushes him onto the floor a couple of hours later: “This bed is small. You have to go.” This fear of intimacy for Cassie obviously stems from past events, which are hinted at in a series of flashbacks. This gives Bullock an edge that she lacks in stereotypical romantic comedies. She's funny here too, but she's also in realistic and gritty territory that stars like Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones have yet to explore. Unfortunately, everything surrounding Bullock falls flat in comparison. Chaplin is fine as Sam, but his character as a genuine romantic interest is never really developed enough. Gosling and Pitt are quite good (translation: disturbing) as the crazy teens, yet they can't overcome that old movie obstacle: how do you make the audience care about a killer? It's not Gosling or Pitt's fault that we don't. Richard and Justin sure are interesting, but the climax would have had added punch if Schroeder had made them more tragic figures. Few directors can maneuver you into understanding what goes through a killer's mind (and making you kick yourself for it)  think Hitchcock's “Psycho”  and Schroeder has yet to master that skill. Still, the film doesn't end quite how you think it will, which puts it a step above a lot of today's suspense fare. And its good performances are matched by its eerie style, which relies more on creepiness than gore. I'll take that over another “Halloween” installment any day.

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