She was the only flaw in their plan.
I'm trying to think back to the time when murder thrillers took on a new shape. The Silence of the Lambs? Se7en? Who knows? It was sometime in the early 1990s when cop movies became dark and ominous in tone (or, at least much more so than up to that point). Since then there have been dozens of movies featuring a gritty cop (usually grappling with a traumatic past) chasing some freaked-out nut job(s) who enjoys killing for smiles and giggles. The newest entry in this sub-genre is the Sandra Bullock thriller Murder by Numbers, now available on DVD care of Warner Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Murder by Numbers shows what can happen when bored rich kids have too much time on their hands. Richard (Ryan Gosling, The Believer) and Justin (Michael Pitt, Hedwig and the Angry Itch) are classmates with seemingly little in common; Richard is a popular, arrogant prick while Justin is a quiet, intellectual bookworm. Unbeknown to everyone around them, the two boys are friends with a deadly plan—kidnap a random woman, murder her and leave behind false clues to toy with the investigators. Once on the crime scene we meet Cassie Mayweather (Bullock), an expertise in forensics and a damaged woman with a past, and her by-the-book partner Sam (Ben Chaplin, The Truth About Cats and Dogs). After some snooping around the evidence leads the authorities to a sleazy janitor (Chris Penn, Reservoir Dogs) at the local high school who has already committed suicide (or so they think…ho-ho-ho). But Cassie's intuition tells her something different—after a chance encounter with one of the boys, she deduces that the real killers are Richard and Justin. As the tension mounts, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues as Cassie digs deeper and deeper to find the truth about the murder and confront the ghosts of her past.
Just a few moments ago, I mentioned the movies Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. I bring this up because both of those films run circles around Murder by Numbers—like those films, Murder by Numbers features a gloomy plot and intricate details about the crime scene and the science of catching criminals. Unlike those films, Murder by Numbers is nothing special—in fact, do a little word replacement, and Murder by Numbers could have easily been re-titled Movie by Numbers.
I know there are some of you out there who will really eat this movie up. It has all the elements of a high-budget Hollywood shocker—the grade-A star (Bullock), the creepy atmosphere, the heartless villain…yes, by first glance Murder by Numbers seems to have it all. What it lacks is a truly enthralling story. Only a few moments into the film we already know who the killers are, and by comparison they aren't all that interesting. Sure, Gosling and Pitt are fine as the respective nutcase kids. In fact, Gosling is downright chilling in his snotty attitude toward life and death. But they don't really add up to much in the way of bad guys—maybe I've been spoiled by my love of whacked out psycho killers, but these guys are just really boring and bland.
Sandra Bullock pulls off a fine performance as Cassie, a woman who sports a past to contend with. Her character is the most complex of the film—she is torn between wanting a connection with someone (which for her means sex) and pushing away those who stray to close to her heart. While I haven't really enjoyed a lot of movies featuring Bullock (save for Speed), I think the actress is cute as a button and very talented. Ben Chaplin is also floating in the same boat—while Birthday Girl and Lost Souls won't do much for the actor's résumé, overall his performances are usually great. Aside of Penn as a grungy drug dealing janitor, the rest of the supporting cast takes a backseat to Bullock and her three leading men.
The movie flip-flops between the police investigation and the boys' sinister plot and subsequent cover-up of their crime. A few scenes crackle with suspense, especially a sequence that involves the boys' plan to commit a double suicide. Of course, by the end of the film we have the requisite twists and turns that will produce gasps of awe from those who have never seen a film from this specific genre. For the rest of us it's all old hat—a well-polished film with well-worn tracks.
Murder by Numbers is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Warner has done a fine job at making sure this print is free of any dirt, grain or other imperfections that might otherwise mar the image. The colors and black levels are all spot-on and solid with only the slightest amount of bleeding present in the picture. Otherwise, this transfer looks to be in fine shape.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English and French. Much like the video portion of this disc, the sound mix is apt and supports the film well. Though the mix is free and clear of any hiss or distortion, it's nothing exciting—while there are a few surround sounds and effects to be found (especially with the music score), generally this is a subdued and middle-of-the-road mix with mild dynamic range. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Since Murder by Numbers wasn't a huge hit in theaters, it's not surprising to find this disc fairly light in the way of extra features. The meatiest of the supplements is the commentary by director Barbet Schroeder and editor Lee Percy. Both of these men are intelligent, well-spoken individuals who have a lot to say about the film and its production (though there isn't as much insight into the characters as I'd have liked). Overall it's a fine commentary, though if you weren't thrilled with the film it's obviously not worth your time.
Also included on this disc is a list of the cast and crew, as well as an anamorphic theatrical trailer for the film.
For a Friday night flick, Murder by Numbers isn't a bad choice—it goes down easy and entertains. However, there are better murder thrillers out there and I recommend those before you pick this up as a rental. Warner's work on this disc is fine—the video and audio are decent and the extra features, however slight, should please fans.
Murder by Numbers is found guilty of being a lackluster crime thriller, though it's out on bail due to its slightly entertaining nature. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Barbet Schroeder and Editor Lee Percy
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