At long last Sandra Bullock doesn't feel the need to be completely lovable - which makes her eminently more appealing.
Bullock's recent roles, whether silly ("Miss Congeniality") or somber ("28 Days," "Hope Floats"), have been undermined by the actress' tendency to go for cutesy-poo rather than risk alienating audiences with unattractive behavior. Cassie Mayweather, the dogged homicide detective she plays in Barbet Schroeder's sharp thriller "Murder by Numbers," is difficult in ways that aren't necessarily charming or easily cured by perkiness.
Sure, she tosses off the requisite bons mots, and she's far from the first female detective to reveal her tomboy roots; in fact, Bullock's wisecracking investigator in "Miss Congeniality" did the same. But Cassie also has an edge that makes her threatening in unpredictable ways - to the audience as well as to her fellow characters.
Not only is Cassie sexually aggressive, but she's also an emotional bully, making her male counterpart the one who worries about feelings. When she tries to steamroll a sometime lover into bed, she puts on a straight face as she tells him, "It's not just about sex. I really respect you as a person." And then she laughs and gets back to watching "Matlock."
Cassie, no surprise, is trying to cover up a whole world of hurt, and that we want to dig beneath her surface puts her far ahead of any character that Bullock has played in years. And Bullock, to her credit, nails it.
The plot finds Cassie and her new partner (does any movie detective not have a new partner?), Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), investigating a murder that's pretty much the Leopold and Loeb case updated. Proving once again that nasty young minds shouldn't be exposed to Nietzsche, a floppy-haired, pouty-lipped, bookish student, Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt), and his spoiled, rich, insufferably popular high school classmate, Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling), concoct a theory that freedom equals crime, and then they act on it.
The victim is a randomly selected woman about Cassie's age, and Cassie's identification with her is so strong that it stirs up the detective's own deliberately repressed history with abuse. And although the evidence and profiling information point to another perpetrator, Cassie immediately homes in on Richard because he's just the kind of snotty, entitled ladies' man that she long ago learned to despise.
Some of the plot elements here truly are by the numbers. This is a movie in which Cassie's boss tells her: "You're getting way too involved on this, Cassie"; and, later, "This case is closed. CLOSED!"
But the veteran Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune," "Single White Female") knows how to tell this story without belaboring the obvious. Working with a well-structured script by Tony Gayton, the director keeps the tone serious-minded but not somber and doesn't overhype the suspense points or twists.
He also provides visuals that are consistently engaging without drawing undue attention to themselves, whether the camera is zooming in on microscopic fibers attached to the victim's arm or pulling back to reveal the dramatic house-on-a-cliff setting of the mostly satisfying climax.
Schroeder might have been better off not encouraging Gosling to play up Richard's villainy quite so much; Richard doesn't have to flare his nostrils and lick Cassie's face to put across that he's a scumbag. Still, Gosling is a charismatic performer, as he showed as a Nazi-sympathizing Jew in the Sundance award-winner "The Believer" (opening soon after a Showtime airing).
His fellow teen actors also have solid indie-film credentials. Pitt, delicate yet fiery-eyed as Justin, played Tommy Gnosis in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." And Agnes Bruckner, fine in the sketchy role of a girl entangled with Richard and Justin, shows her impressive true range in the acclaimed 2002 Sundance drama "Blue Car."
As Detective Kennedy, Chaplin is understated and deferential to Bullock's Cassie, just as he should be. This type of performance rarely gets recognition, but an actor needs a certain amount of confidence to play such a quietly decent character as Kennedy, whose disagreements with Cassie are based not on careerism or romantic resentment but on the simple desire to do the right thing.
Cassie's main desire is to catch the killer(s), but her motives are so scrambled - and her actions sometimes so questionable - that the movie has you wondering whether she is irrationally biased against Richard. That's some feat, given that you already know his true character.
Again, credit Bullock for bringing us on board with the troubled Cassie - as well as Gayton and Schroeder for making a psychological thriller that's about more than nabbing the killers. The story really is as much about a woman confronting her attitudes toward men and her past as it is about two alienated kids whose parents should have paid more attention.
The outline of "Murder by Numbers" may be familiar, but the filmmakers and Bullock do an expert job of filling in the colors.
"Murder By Numbers"
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; written by Tony Gayton; photographed by Luciano Tovoli; edited by Lee Percy; production designed by Stuart Wurtzel; music by Clint Mansell; produced by Richard Crystal, Schroeder, Susan Hoffman. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, April 19. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: R (violence, language, a sex scene, brief drug use).
Cassie Mayweather - Sandra Bullock
Sam Kennedy - Ben Chaplin
Richard Haywood - Ryan Gosling
Justin Pendleton - Michael Pitt
Lisa Mills - Agnes Bruckner Ray - Chris Penn
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.