Under-Rated Movies #18: Murder by Numbers (2002); Dir. Barbet Schroeder

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So under-rated as to be almost completely invisible, and never mentioned in this past Oscar season, when Sandra Bullock was so much discussed – Murder by Numbers has some truly stupid elements, a boring title, and a terrible ending (badly shot, among other things which I will get into), but why I love it (and yes, I do love it), is its insistence on keeping focused on character, despite the bossy plot, and the “thriller” demands. At the center of this movie is a well-drawn specific portrait of a homicide detective, and how they do what they do. Bullock is terrific in the part, managing to suggest that the character is scarred somewhere, something is “wrong” with her socially, but she also gets to be really good at her job. She is driven by personal demons, as a lot of people are, but she keeps it all under a tightly-closed lid, which saves the character from the Freudian-slash-Oprah direction it keeps wanting to go in. It’s a very controlled performance. You really believe she is an excellent cop. The character is not in the writing, which can be pretty on-the-nose, even annoyingly so, but in Bullock’s performance. One of the most amazing things here is how consistently she dodges the bullets. Not from the criminals she is tracking, but from the pitfalls of the script. Bullock underplays, keeps her cool, stays hard, is willing to be unpleasant (she is not at all likeable, although you end up feeling for her), and doesn’t care about protecting her character. By that I mean, she isn’t telling the audience from the get-go: “I’m wounded, like me, feel sorry for me … it’ll pay off”. Lesser actresses do this all the time. Not Bullock. She doesn’t give a shit if you like her or not. Perfect for the role, and one of the reasons why the movie flat out works. Rent it to watch HER, and you’ll see why this film is under-rated.

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The acting is good all around (and sometimes actually great) with Michael Pitt and Ryan Gosling playing a modern-day Leopold and Loeb. They are teenagers, one is a brainiac, the other the class clown, and they make a big pretense of not knowing one another (all part of their dastardly plan), when in acutality they are enmeshed, and spend all their free time in a big abandoned house on a cliff, reading Nietzsche and drinking absinthe and playing Russian Roulette. They dream of the perfect murder. Just like Leopold and Loeb, they want to prove to themselves that they are real men, better men than others, because they could conceive of something so perfect, so airtight, that they would never be caught. They read forensic books, learning everything they can about DNA analysis and fiber analysis, so that they will not mess up. The best part is: the murder must be totally random. They must have no connection with the person. Only then, will it be perfect.

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Pretty cliched stuff, I know, but what elevates Murder by Numbers is the quality of the acting. There is some top-notch stuff going on here. Michael Pitt is a gloomy puffy-faced kid who skulks around, but he is hiding something: he is hiding his own dreams of grandeur and domination. He plays the victim, because it is a perfect cover. And Ryan Gosling is fantastic as the “dumb” one. The rich kid who wears a red leather jacket, who seems to have everything fall into his lap, but who is missing something in his personality. Empathy, certainly, but maybe that just comes because he’s never had to work for anything in his life. Gosling suggests all kinds of things going on, even though the character is never given an explanatory monologue about who he is. He keeps it in the air, and when the mask comes off in an interrogation room, it is, I am not ashamed to say, a brilliant moment. Unforced. Compulsively watchable. He works every moment as though it is a battle of the wills and he must come out on top. You can see how he would snow everyone: teachers, parents, guidance counselors. He turns on the charm, and people fall like ninepins. He is fully aware of himself at every moment, a true narcissist. He has grown up believing he is untouchable, due to his wealth, his good looks, and he has the cocky swagger of someone who has no idea what it means to want anything. But he has a secret, too. Their crime depends on them sticking together, following the plan. They must not be broken apart. They must get their stories straight. The plan has been in the works for a couple of years. It is not clear how these two met, but they have been keeping up the charade that they don’t like each other (Gosling makes fun of Pitt in the hallways, snickers at Pitt in class), so that when the day comes that they commit their crime, nobody would ever dream of suspecting them, or even know that there was a connection between them in the first place.

Both of them are true sociopaths, and the young actors are chilling in portraying their roles.

But the star here is Sandra Bullock. She plays Cassie Mayweather (first of all: the name is a problem. That is not a real name, script writer.), a homicide detective. She has been assigned a new cop to train who has transferred over from Vice (he is played by Ben Chaplin, who is actually given quite a lot to do here, unlike many of his other parts – and he’s great), and a murdered girl is found in a ravine, so she takes him with her to the crime scene, walking him through the process. Early on, this is the scene that lets us know what kind of thriller this is going to be. It’s not a “gotcha” thriller, it’s not going to be gory or violent: it is going to be an intellectual thriller, one that focuses on forensics, and also how crime scenes are analyzed and handled. How investigations move forward. How criminal profiles are used by police departments, and how they rule out certain aspects. Is the killer “organized” or “disorganized”? Having just read Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI , by Robert Ressler (a top FBI profiler), I had a lot of fun seeing Murder by Numbers again, watching cops standing at white-boards, with “characteristics” of specific profiles written out, and trying to decide if the killer here qualified. This is how it’s done. At least according to Ressler. It’s not a magic wand: check this box, and you’ll find your killer – but the guideposts are there, and Murder by Numbers has done its homework.

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Cassie and her new partner (Chaplin) argue about the profile. Chaplin says he’s “disorganized”, meaning he feels that, based on the evidence, the killing was random. Something doesn’t sit right with Cassie about that. The body was found in a ravine, yes, but it was on the other side of a creek, far away from the road, and footprints were found in the mud, which meant, among other things, that the killer had to have picked this spot for its remoteness, and also had to have somehow dragged the body down the hill, through the creek, and across to the other side. A “disorganized” killer (thank you, Mr. Ressler) usually dumps bodies wherever they feel like it, they panic, they freak out, they don’t cover their tracks. Arguments erupt between Bullock and her partner. “He’s spontaneous AND he plans? Come on, guys, this doesn’t make sense!”

Ressler talks about how important it is to learn how to analyze crime scenes, and that 9 times out of 10, everything you need to know will be at that primary site. Not just in terms of evidence left behind, but in subtler clues, clues which let you know who the person is. Is there blood everywhere? Are there missing limbs? Was an attempt made to cover the body up? All of these things are indicators (or, possible indicators).

I knew a homicide detective once, and I grilled him about all of this, because I feel like I missed my calling in many ways, although I would have a hard time being around murdered bodies all the time. But I asked him every question I could think of, and he was fascinating, I wish I had tape recorded it. He handled all of my questions with good humor, patience, and a deep animal intelligence, which actually bordered on something almost spiritual. Like a genius can’t describe how he plays the violin like he does, or how he can calculate columns of numbers in his head with lightning speed, this homicide detective could not speak specifically (at first, but believe me, I wore him down) about how he did what he did. If you start to listen to these cops, (and I watch every forensic show known to man) many of them say stuff like, “I don’t know, something didn’t feel right.” “I walked into that crime scene, and just knew something was off.” “Something’s not right about that guy.”

Now you cannot convict someone on these vague “something’s not right” feelings, but a good homicide detective always trusts his gut. He understands information, and he can process things very quickly. He knows what a random crime scene looks like, so he can instantly tell if one has been “staged”. But often he cannot immediately point the finger at what is “wrong”. It’s a gut feeling. Hard to quantify.

Bullock plays a cop like that. She nails it. She and her partner kneel over the dead body and discuss what they see. The film has made him a trainee, which is a convenient way to “show” that she knows her job, because she is showing him the ropes, asking him to analyze the scene. It seems that the stab wounds on the victim’s chest are tentative. They barely break the skin. That is information. The victim is missing a finger. Chaplin glances at Bullock and asks, “Trophy?” Bullock never takes her eyes off the victim. She murmurs, “Maybe …”

Murder by Numbers has two separate stories: the two sociopath teenagers, and the local investigation closing in on them (even though they thought they had planned it perfectly) – and while it’s perhaps not the tensest thriller of all time (we know from the start that the two boys did it), what I like about it is its patience with the boring nitty-gritty that is so much of cop-work. Filing paperwork, autopsies, waiting for fiber analysis, sitting around in the office and talking about the case … In those scenes, Murder by Numbers knows exactly what it is, isn’t trying to be anything else, and does it very very well. It’s fun and engaging to watch people figure things out, especially when the plot is twisty enough to not reveal all right away. However (and this, for me, is key): the plot really comes down to personalities.

Who ARE these two boys? What is their dynamic? How did they do it? And above all, why?

Slowly, Cassie becomes obsessed with the case, and she seems especially obsessed by Ryan Gosling. She has a visceral dislike to the kid, and it seems over-the-top, it seems to be about something else. She is reprimanded repeatedly for this, but she continues to insist, “Something’s not right with that kid … something’s not right.”

To add to all of this, Murder by Numbers has given Sandra Bullock a really interesting person to play, outside of her important job and her skill at it. She lives in isolation on a houseboat. She sits around on her days off, in a bathrobe, watching Matlock. She is notorious for sleeping with everyone. The other cops call her “hyena” and her new partner wonders why. She says to him, casually, as she opens the gate to the dock leading to her houseboat, “Female hyenas have protruding mock penises.” She doesn’t seem particularly bothered by her own behavior. It’s something to dull the pain. She sleeps with Chaplin almost instantly, before he realizes that she has done this to everyone in the department, as well as the assistant DA, and when they’re done having sex, she kicks him out of bed. Literally. Shoves him off to the side. “I gotta get up in the morning. Go.”

Bullock, who radiates niceness, I think, and humor, and good companionship – is bringing something else in her personality to the foreground here. The wounded coldness that can be the result of loneliness and fear. She plays none of this literally, however. Cassie Mayweather (sorry. Not a real name) is not particularly self-aware. She doesn’t feel she needs to be, because her whole life is her job. And THERE, she knows who she is. Who cares if she sleeps with everybody? Who cares if she sits in a bathrobe for days at a time? Why on earth does it matter, as long as she shows up to work and kicks ass? Bullock, with brief flickers, lets us in on her sadness, which is even more heartbreaking because of the effort she has put in to hiding it. Pain hurts her more, because she resists it.

She has a secret, too.

The ending of the film is a betrayal of all that has come before, a showdown at the house on the cliff, which, unfortunately, puts Cassie Mayweather, the best cop on the force, into a damsel in distress situation, where she must be saved at the last minute. Too bad. The film didn’t have the courage of its convictions, and it is difficult to imagine an ending of a film where the lead cop is male, and suddenly, when confronted with the killers face to face, crumples and must be saved by his female partner. Not to mention the fact that it’s a very action-packed ending, with some giant occurrences involving architecture and falling bodies and the special effects look pretty shlocky. Silly, actually.

To see Cassie Mayweather (have I mentioned how I feel about her name), a woman we have come to know over the course of the film, as no-nonsense, fearless, willing to go in first to any frightening situation, ballsy, annoying, headstrong, suddenly reduced to a screaming female tied to the railroad tracks, is a bummer of the highest order.

Nevertheless: The acting here is why you should see it, and Bullocks’ work throughout packs a strange punch for me. This is one of those movies where no matter when it is on, or what I am doing, I have to sit and watch the rest of it. The silliness is undeniable, but weed through that, and you have the four leads: Bullock, Chaplin, Gosling and PItt – creating really really interesting characters who all, cops and criminals, have flaws, fears and secrets, secrets from each other, of course, but also secrets they keep from themselves, and, in the end, the film is about intelligence. I love it for that reason alone. It is about watching people think. It is about watching Bullock look around her, at the ravine, the creek, the mud, the piles of leaves, and murmur to herself, “Something’s not right here …”

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More in my Under-rated Movies Series:

This post covers 5: Ball of Fire, Only Angels Have Wings, Dogfight, Zero Effect and Manhattan Murder Mystery

Four Daughters

In a Lonely Place

Searching For Bobby Fischer

Joe vs. the Volcano

Something’s Gotta Give

Truly, Madly, Deeply

Mr. Lucky

Eye of God

Love and Basketball

Kwik Stop

The Rapture

Waking the Dead

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14 Responses to Under-Rated Movies #18: Murder by Numbers (2002); Dir. Barbet Schroeder

  1. brendan says:

    What a cool review! I kind of love flawed movies because you see how hard it is to bat 1,000, to make a perfect movie.

    To wit…

    “Shakes The Clown”. If you haven’t seen it, just watch it. The first twenty minutes are HANDS DOWN some of the funniest moments I’ve EVER seen on film.

    It can’t sustain it but that almost makes it more lovable, y’know?

    Gonna watch this one day now.

  2. red says:

    shakes the clown – hahahahaha Man, yes!!! It’s been years since I’ve seen it!

    Yeah, there are some big stinkers here – but her acting is so good (and Gosling, in particular is so good) that it really does forgive much of the balderdash.

  3. red says:

    Oh, and I also very much liked that Murder By Numbers did not try to do too much by giving her a romance. There’s sex – but you get very early on what that is about with her – it’s totally soulless, and as far as we know, after the movie ends, Cassie is still sitting in her bathrobe, watching Matlock on her day off, and doing a great job during her shifts. I really liked that. It gives the film focus.

  4. Desirae says:

    Ryan Gosling used to be on a truly silly show about a bunch of teenagers going to school on a boat. My sister used to watch it and we agreed that he was the only one on the show that could act. He was good enough (in spite of the material) that I can still remember specifics of that performance and the character he played. I’m not surprised that he has gone on to do interesting work.

  5. Dave E. says:

    “I don’t know, something didn’t feel right.”

    Yes. I loved how Malcolm Gladwell delved into that in “Blink”.

  6. red says:

    Dave – yes, he really really covers that gut feeling perfectly.

  7. red says:

    Desirae – I’m a big fan of his too!

    I believe Ryan Gosling is a future Oscar winner. Lars and the Real Girl was amazing, he was amazing in it – so damaged, but so sweet – he managed to make that absurd situation TOTALLY real. He’s a fine actor, the real deal.

    And he’s very riveting here, as this soulless rich kid, who believes the world is just a big fat joke, and everything is so funny, because why on earth care about anything? It’s stupid to care. Everyone is stupid. Except him.

    He’s actually quite terrifying – even though this isn’t a thriller with violence or blood or anything like that. He is psychologically terrifying.

  8. Desirae says:

    Sheila – Lars and the Real Girl was WONDERFUL. I love that entire town. I want to move there.

    You make a good point about his Murder by Numbers character – it isn’t rage, or really even hatred that drives him. It’s contempt. Everybody is stupid, except him. Exactly. He’s one of those people that laughs at everything, but has no actual sense of humor at all.

  9. Desirae says:

    One more thing – it sort of bugs me that what Ryan Gosling is probably best known for is the Notebook. I admit I got bored and turned that one off halfway through. It’s an okay movie or whatever, but I just wasn’t drawn in by it in spite of my respect for the actors involved.

  10. Scotter says:

    I remember being frustrated by this movie. Something like watching Sandra Bullock inhabit the character and kicking ass doing it and I just had to accept whatever was given to me about her so I had to fill in the blanks myself…..and then I felt a studio executive demand that the movie EXPLAIN HER – NOW! so the screenplay inserted a moment on page __ to make the suit happy. I won’t give away the moment, but all that subtlety was broken by the sin of obviousness – for me at least.
    But yeah, she was great in this.

  11. red says:

    Scotter- Yup. I know exactly the moment you mean. It’s interesting to watch because it is so OBVIOUS – but she (Bullock) plays it coolly and matter-of-factly – I am sure she realized she was being set up to fail in that moment (thanks, screenplay!) – so she did what she had to do to survive it. There are a couple of moments like that – but her monologue is really the big one.

  12. Scotter says:

    Yeah, I was expecting a lot from this movie because of Barbet Schroeder. I think this one was right after Our Lady of the Assassins which was a brutal brutal movie (and that’s a good thing), so I was hoping for a little more of that ruthlessness.

  13. Steven_O says:

    I was just discussing this movie with a friend! I was flipping through the channels one night and stumbled upon this movie. I had never heard of it… And it starred Sandra Bullock (I have never given her the credit she probably deserves). I was shocked by where the movie started going. So watching it with completely no expectations or preconceptions led to a really cool experience overall.

  14. red says:

    Steven – I had a similar experience – I think I ended up watching some of it on TV one night (it always seems to be on), and found it intriguing and lOVED Bullock’s character. Since then, I’ve watched it again, and find it very effective. Mainly because of the reasons I listed here – If you have THOSE things, then one can forgive a schlocky thriller ending.

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