For director Barbet Schroeder and producer Susan Hoffman, 2001 was a film odyssey that in retrospect seems a little spacey. The team that collaborated on such serviceable, if underwhelming, psycho and/or crime thrillers as Single White Female (1992), Kiss of Death (1995) and Desperate Measures (1998) went off and worked separately on remarkably different projects. Schroeder directed the deeply personal Our Lady of the Assassins, about an aging writer returning to drug-riddled Colombia to die. Hoffman (a New Orleans resident) collaborated with director Henry Bean on the controversial and sometimes-brilliant The Believer, about a Jew in such rebellion against his culture he becomes a neo-Nazi skinhead. Distribution problems over its content have obscured a potential star-turn lead performance by Ryan Gosling.
Both projects hinted at a remarkable artistic depth absent from most of the previous decade of Schroeder/Hoffman projects.
Now they're back together on familiar ground with Murder by Numbers, a title drowning in irony. A more accurate title might be Crime Thriller by Numbers, because despite some interesting ideas and solid lead performances, Schroeder and Hoffman offer more of the standard plot twists and convenient resolutions that give the genre such a bad name. Has Se7en ruined us forever?
The good news is that both learned that Ryan Gosling is the real deal; Hoffman convinced Schroeder to sign up Gosling after his work on The Believer, and it is the kinetic energy between Gosling and star Sandra Bullock that keeps this movie moving. The fact that one is the hunter and one is the prey, and that sometimes the roles seem in reverse, barely makes Murder by Numbers worth so many of the other pitfalls.
Bullock's Cassie Mayweather is a Cop With a Past, damaged goods who becomes a detective for the same reason nutcakes become therapists: it's great catharsis. Dubbed The Hyena by her co-workers for all the wrong reasons, the cynical Cassie attracts and ultimately repels anyone who comes close to her, as her new partner Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin, never duller) is about to find out the hard way. Hmmm, jaded cop, naive partner, sexual tension ... are we missing anything?
Gosling is Richard, one half of a high school murder duet; paired up with Michael Pitt's nerdy but brilliant (and brooding) Justin, he's a snotty rich kid looking for kicks. Together, they resemble some greatest-hits composite sketch of real-life dynamic-duo killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith (immortalized in In Cold Blood) and Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (who inspired Hitchcock's Rope). Don't forget to add the homoerotic subtext!
The beauty of Murder by Numbers isn't the focus of the story, the old cat-and-mouse game that the psycho killers play with the cops in trying to commit (as Leopold and Lobe attempted) a serendipitous perfect crime. No, the beauty of the film is the way Bullock and Gosling play off each other. This is where the real tension exists, because Gosling's Richard works all of Cassie's last nerves -- and some of her first, hence the attract-repel vibe he elicits in her. When he finds her stalking him to gather more evidence (on her own time, you see, because her superiors don't believe her!), he turns the tables on her and leaves her in tears. When he sneers, "What, I'm too young for you?," as we learn later in the film, he doesn't realize how perfectly suited he might be.
On her own, Bullock works well slightly against type while using some of the adorable sass that fueled kooky characters in everything from Speed to Miss Congeniality. There's a weariness to her Cassie that always seems to dull her wisecracks. It's almost as if she's saying, "OK, here's one you probably haven't heard," with just enough energy to snap back at those around her but with no energy to follow through. Really, she just wants to get the bad guy and knock off those demons. It's a nice touch for an actress who's deserved better roles -- or rather, better films.
Gosling's Richard is all of our worst fears, a smart rich kid with absentee parents and a bloodlust. (Cassie calls Richard and Justin "orphans with credit cards.") While his infatuation with what is supposed to be his doppelganger in Justin is almost wholly unbelievable, Gosling spends half the film trying to erase our doubts. His face looks like it melted off an Al Hirschfeld cartoon; his plucked eyebrows bend and lean, his blue eyes almost cross under examination, his thin lips pucker and purse, his shock of bottle-blond hair stray to near-imperfection. Like Cassie and Justin, we can't take our eyes off him.
Beyond that, well, there's some mumbo-jumbo about suicide and crime as freedom and consequences of actions, a Rimbaud reference as a clue, a girl who gets between the killers, and twists and turns without much angles, careening toward a predictably unpredictable end. Nah, if you want to see if Barbet Schroeder and Susan Hoffman got anything out of 2001, it's how to pair a hot newcomer with a familiar favorite.
- Crime thriller by numbers: Sam (Ben Chaplin) learns the crime-scene ropes from Cassie (Sandra Bullock) in Barbet Schroeder's latest, Murder By Numbers.