Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 11th, 2010
Can we know the truth?
One might not go so far as to call The Oxford Murders "dull," but there's little life to be found in this mathematical thriller.
An American graduate student (Elijah Wood) arrives at prodigious Oxford, a student of mathematics eager to study with his idol, Professor Seldom (John Hurt). After a dead body turns up with a mathematical calling card attached, they pool their considerable talents to assist in solving the murder. Soon, more bodies appear, each carrying another calling card, suggesting a deep mathematical puzzle.
A faithful adaptation of the bestselling novel by the same name, The Oxford Mysteries features some moderately famous actors, beautiful women, the endlessly sprawling and majestic architecture of Oxford, and strikingly handsome cinematography. Even the plot, a Hitchcock-inspired string of serialized murders sleuthed by a mathematics-obsessed Oxford professor and his student, is conceptually interesting. And yet, the film flops quite awkwardly, like an asphyxiated fish.
Imagine yourself a Hollywood executive watching this film for the first time back in 2008. You can feel the palatable sense of dread in the room, watching executives growing increasingly desperate as they try in vain to pigeonhole the film into a recognizable marketable genre. The Oxford Murders is not really a thriller. It's not really a murder mystery, at least not a particularly satisfying one. There's some drama and romance, but also a lot of mathematics, which isn't really a big draw for audiences these days. Hardly surprising then, that the studio sat on the film for two years before finally dumping it direct to DVD with little fanfare.
Without spoiling the plot entirely, The Oxford Murders earns the ire of audiences by subverting genre expectations and being kind of flagrant about it. The film has been packaged and marketed with a trailer cut showcasing the film as a tense thrill ride, full of puzzles, murders, conspiracies, and dark secrets; like The DaVinci Code in Oxford. To the chagrin of unsuspecting audiences, The Oxford Murders is really a series of thoughtful ruminations on the nature of crime, of logic, and of mathematical uncertainty, pattern recognition, the paradoxical effect of observation, and other such treatises. Yes, there is a murder mystery, but it is nothing more than the intellectual exercises of a professor and student of mathematics, trading hypotheses back and forth. It's like My Dinner with Andre, substituting a string of dead bodies for the main course.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of film, taken at face value. It owes much in this regard to a faithful adaptation of the novel's source material, rather than any kind of execution. Indeed, The Oxford Murders has some hooks for the intellectually curious. It is an original and unique take on a thriller, to laden it down with mathematical suppositions and theorems in pursuit of a killer. It takes the whodunit genre and inverts it on its head, then performs long division by hand all over it. There is something brave and admiral about the film in this sense; a subversive disregard for audience expectations, cumulating in a seemingly nonsensical climax full of doubletalk and logical fallacies that reeks of Scooby Doo plot resolution. And yet somehow, it still ends up being clever and subversive, if you think about it just so, kind of like a Magic Eye puzzle.
It boils down to execution. The Oxford Murders is clever, but so leaden down with its own intellectual explorations and machinations that the basic elements of character development, of quality acting, of plot and tension and pathos are just totally ignored. The concepts tossed around are fascinating, but the actual film is tedious and muted. If the film were just a bit more outrageous, a bit more flagrantly self-referential or outlandish or subversive, you could categorize The Oxford Murders as ironic, and the film would be a rousing success. Instead, director Álex de la Iglesia (a cult filmmaker who cut his teeth on exactly the kind of over-the-top film this script begs to be) delivers it straight as an arrow, with drab and dreary results.
Even the acting is dreadful. The dialogue is atrociously hamfisted across the board. This might be the worst performance by Elijah Wood ever. Wooden and perpetually disconnected, he delivers his lines like rocks thrown into a tin can. The venerable actor John Hurt isn't too far behind, his frenetic intensity perpetually derailed by the corny dialogue he is forced to deliver. The only plus is Leonor Watling, who does a decent job as the romantic interest for Wood. I guess it doesn't hurt that she is beautiful beyond all reason. It's possible I'm, ah, biased in that regard.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the 2.35:1 presentation is handsome and articulate, with muted color palates, heavy shadows and some appropriately gloomy cinematography and marvelous on-site shots of Oxford. Some grain is evident, but minor amounts here and there, and the transfer has little in the way of artifacts or other compression issues. All in all, a solid transfer. For audio, we get Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with clear dialogue and respectable bass levels. Environmental placement is average and rear channels mostly get utilized for the score, a predictably (but effectively) dramatic affair.
In terms of extras, the bulk of the supplements are grab-bag featurettes, each running between 5 and 15 minutes in length. We get "The Making of The Oxford Murders," "Criminal Math of Oxford," "Interviews," "The Oxford Murders at Abbey Road," "Professor Kalman," "Set Design," "Waiting for Alex," "Kalman's Makeup," "HDNet: A Look at The Oxford Murders," and "Behind the Scenes of The Oxford Murders."
It is amusing to consider that the very element that makes The Oxford Murders a lousy thriller is the same element that makes the film worth watching. If that sounds paradoxical, you're right -- but that's the problem with crafting a murder mystery around a series of mathematical suppositions. Philosophical ruminations on Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty and Wittgenstein's rule-following paradox are excellent intellectual fodder, and on paper they set up quite an interesting central theme for a murder mystery. In reality, they have the exact opposite effect on the screen.
Hey, hold on...I think I discovered a new mathematical paradox here: the more interesting mathematical theories you work into your thriller, the less thrilling it becomes. Someone alert the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
As interesting as the mathematical elements in The Oxford Murders can be, their inclusion has the unintended side effect of ruining all the thriller elements of this film entirely. Add to this some laughably bad acting performances by Elijah Wood and this one becomes a tepid rental at best.
If anything in this review sounds interesting, you'd be better off reading the novel instead.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R