Sandra Bullock ("Miss Congeniality") is competent as Cassie Mayweather, a lusty but emotionally unavailable homicide detective hot on the trail of a couple of southern Californian teen murderers in this paint-by-numbers Hollywood suspense-thriller. "Murder By Numbers" gets a solid dose of social gravity from old-school director Barbet Schroeder's ("Kiss of Death") use of Hitchcockian compositions and close attention to visual detail. Unfortunately, the script doesn't leave much room for surprise as Cassie closes in on the killers with the help of her smart upstart detective partner Sam (Ben Chaplin). The film succeeds as a visual feast, but fails miserably as a thriller due mainly to poor plotting.
In his biographical dictionary of film, David Thomson speaks of director Barbet Schroeder as having "a connoisseur's eye for decadence." It's a to-the-point description of the mesmerizing heat that can rise off of Schroeder's films, such as with "Barfly" (1987), "Reversal of Fortune" (1990), "Single White Female" (1992), and his most recent, the terribly flawed yet impossibly pure, "Our Lady of the Assassins" (2001). Thrown into the snake pit of Hollywood's churn-and-burn machine, Schroeder elevates his source material by imbuing the film with rich visual textures that underpin the social context of the characters and open up prisms of curiosity.
Schroeder captures the arid southern California town of San Benito as an immoral corner of American affluence. It's a place where everyone is part of the "middle class," even if what that means is that the local marijuana dealer/high school janitor has a pet baboon and high school kids wear $600 shoes. A signature trademark of Schroeder is his use of negative background space to emphasize the effect of surroundings on his characters. The deceptive calm and tranquility of the small coastal town is a hotbed that nourishes two intelligent boys to commit a random, albeit highly planned, murder as a surrogate sex act for their latent homosexual urges. Schroeder collaborates with his long-time cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to mark the film's neo-noir mise en scene.
The most startling aspect of the movie is the depth of repressed remorse that the young killers relieve by committing an act that will effectively end their lives. Schroeder contains the outrageousness of the violence by charting the emotional motivations across the faces of the killers as they commit their brutal act. Both Ryan Gosling ("The Believer") and Michael Pitt ("Finding Forrester") fulfill their roles as killers with a daring ugliness that gives agonizing scope to the movie overall.
In the film's most evocative scene, Gosling (as super-stud rich-kid Richard Haywood)shamelessly shines Sandra Bullock on. In the scene, Cassie sits in her car, after having just photographed the two suspects together, when Richard boldly approaches her about her presence there and begins a flirtation that erupts when he verbally exposes the core of her personality. Gosling's subtle virtuosity goes from intimidating to sensual to betrayal in flashes that include a solitary tear and a bump on the head. Gosling has a clockwork acting style that is as calculating as it is powerful.
Indeed, Barbet Schroeder has a "connoisseur's eye for decadence." His treatment of various seduction scenes between Cassie and Sam, a love triangle between the two boys and their attractive blonde classmate Lisa (played by Agnes Bruckner), and acts of near-strangulation that occur, suggest a self-inflicted immorality that finds voice in debauched sexual expression. Although it's clear with Cassie that hers is a sensually-if necessity-motivated form of sexual assertion. Sandra Bullock continues to improve her talents ever-so-slightly with every movie she does, but she's still far too 'sorority girl' to successfully pull off a suspense thriller. Her star may not be 'rising,' but it is fairly constant.
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