The A-picture at the top of the bill is a fairly standard star vehicle like those that used to be specially tailored for Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. This one features established diva Sandra Bullock as Cassie Mayweather, a sharp-tongued "get the hell out of my crime scene" type of homicide detective who has to solve the toughest case of her career.
As written by Tony Gayton, "Murder by Numbers" is no whodunit--we know at once that the boys committed the crime in question--but rather follows a catch-us-if-you-can scenario as the lads match wits with the intrepid detective.
A crime-scene specialist and a pillar of the police force of the California coastal town of San Benito (modeled after San Luis Obispo), Mayweather is introduced while breaking in a new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin, serviceable as always).
Mayweather, as it turns out, has had lots of new partners. She's a tough, take-charge cop, tough on personal and professional relationships and nicknamed "the Hyena" around the force. Plus, she just happens to have something in her past that gets her in over her head emotionally in her newest case, which involves the seemingly random murder of an innocent young girl.
Though much may be made of this being a darker role for Bullock, the police story is very much the more standard aspect of "Murder by Numbers," and the actress being an executive producer assured that this part of the film would be carefully tailored to her specifications..
When we first meet Richard Haywood (Gosling, who broke through as the title character in Henry Bean's "The Believer") and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt), they look and act so stereotypical--Richard the smirky, arrogant rich kid, Justin the ultimate genius misfit--that the fear is that this part of the film will be standard as well.
But this doesn't happen. As they hang out together after school at a deserted house on a bluff, drinking absinthe, talking about how living fully means embracing crime and exulting that "there are no limits for men like us," an involving dynamic is visible. And as they spar over the affections of classmate Lisa (Agnes Bruckner, excellent in the Sundance hit "Blue Car"), the kind of twisted feeling they have for each other emerges in an increasingly intriguing way.
Partially this is due to the energy and skill of the actors and partially to a script that gradually reveals how elaborately planned the crime was and takes pleasure in delineating the cat-and-mouse games between the two boys, determined to prove that they know what the police are thinking before they think it, and detective Mayweather, who starts with just the merest hunch that there is more going on with these kids than it might appear.
Also a key player is Schroeder, one of the most interesting directors working in the studio system, able to go back and forth between smaller, darker independent items such as "Maitresse," "Barfly" and "Our Lady of the Assassins," and more polished mainstream films such as "Reversal of Fortune," "Single White Female" and this one. Though he makes you squirm more than you want to at the inevitable scenes of the trussed-up female murder victim, he also has the proclivity and the skill to make at least the B-picture half of "Murder by Numbers" of more than passing interest.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, language, a sex scene and brief drug use. Times guidelines: disturbing murder scenes and graphic violence.
'Murder by Numbers'
Sandra Bullock...Cassie Mayweather
Ben Chaplin...Sam Kennedy
Ryan Gosling...Richard Haywood
Michael Pitt...Justin Pendleton
Agnes Bruckner...Lisa Mills
A Castle Rock Entertainment presentation of a Schroeder/Hoffman Production, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director Barbet Schroeder. Producers Barbet Schroeder, Susan Hoffman. Executive producers Sandra Bullock, Jeffrey Stott. Screenplay Tony Gayton. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Editor Lee Percy. Costumes Carol Oditz. Music Clint Mansell. Production design Stuart Wurtzel. Art director Thomas Valentine. Set decorator Hilton Rosemarin. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
In general release