Once that you’ve decided on a killing,
First, you make a stone of your heart
And if you find that your hands are still willing,
Then you can turn a murder into art.
—“Murder by numbers,” The Police
Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling, The Believer) and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) have decided on a killing. Their motive isn’t anger or vengeance. Perhaps it’s love: a narcissistic love of themselves. With their hearts as hard as the walls of Columbine High School, with deep faith in only the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (one of Hitler’s favorite thinkers) and their protective birthright of upper-class privilege, these poor little rich boys make the art of the perfect murder their extracurricular activity.
The homicide case of Olivia Lake (Krista K. Carpenter) opens up Det. Cassie Mayweather’s (Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality) Pandora’s box of old psychological wounds which are as hidden away as their traumatic, physical souvenirs: the scars under her shirts. Her investigation goes well beyond the professional into the intimately and painfully personal.
Like the recently released Changing Lanes, this is a drama with a subtle subtext of class struggle in thriller drag. Mayweather is a damaged, working-class woman obsessed and compelled to bring the two murderous, rich brats to justice. By winning justice for a victim who could have been her, she redeems herself.
But where racial concerns lie under the surface of Changing Lanes, it’s gender that itches under Mayweather’s scars. As in Miss Congeniality (2000), Bullock stars and produces, exploring her own issues with conventional femininity. In this film, she pushes the comedy into the background to approach the theme more dramatically. Essentially, Mayweather is a sexual role reversal of the hardboiled renegade detective character. She drinks too much, sends her new partner, greenhorn Det. Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin, Birthday Girl), for the coffee and doughnuts — and kicks him out of bed when she’s finished with him. The flip of the script isn’t gratuitous: We discover that Mayweather has a good reason to reject femininity as victimization.
The young murderers don’t rack up the same body count but can’t help but remind us of the less artistic Columbine slayers (as did the infamous Basketball Diaries and O). But Richard and Justin are more the bastard children of Leopold and Loeb, two overachieving young college students who murdered a 14-year-old boy in cold blood in 1924 as an exercise in existential freedom right out of Crime and Punishment. The Leopold and Loeb murder is one of the true crimes of the 20th century and has been acted out in three previous films, most notably in Hitchcock’s innovative Rope (1948).
Director Barbet Schroeder is no stranger to Hitchcockian and film noir themes. His Single White Female may be one of many less-than-perfect homages to the Master of Suspense. And the stories Schroeder’s chosen to film — from his first American movie, Barfly (1987), to his neo-noir Kiss of Death (1995), through his last independent feature, Our Lady of the Assassins (2000) — all feature antiheroes. But Schroeder isn’t a notorious Hitchcock imitator like director Brian DePalma: He’s an auteur whose body of work since Reversal of Fortune (which earned him a Best Director Oscar nomination in 1991) has a leitmotif of murder and its aftermath.
Murder by Numbers may not be a perfect or classic film. But by weaving together the multilayered stories of murder as an after-school project in philosophy and a damaged female cop’s redemption, Schroeder with screenwriter Tony Gayton (the upcoming Salton Sea) have brought something both novel and worthwhile to the cineplex. And that’s what counts.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.