On Screen

More to 'Murder' Than Numbers

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 19, 2002

THE TITLE says it all, and yet it doesn't.

"Murder by Numbers," yes, is your basic Hollywood thriller. Specifically, it's a Sandra Bullock thriller. Our star (who plays Cassie Mayweather, a prematurely jaded homicide detective) is fiercely independent, looks good even when she's wearing dowdy clothes (in her hip houseboat). She cracks tough jokes. Always has the last word with any man who dares to flirt or josh.

And, when she feels like it, she (and she alone) makes the first move. And dumps him soon thereafter. Whaddagal.

"Um, what are you doing?" hems and haws her rookie partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), as Cassie nuzzles into him for a late-night romp. Later that night, she rolls him out of bed and sends him home. Just like she's done with other partners. See you in the morning. We got work to do.

The victim's found lying by a river wrapped in a plastic sheet, eyes staring and bloodshot from strangulation. One fingertip hacked off. No clues, except a patch of dried vomit. Sorry, this movie gets real forensic.

On the one hand, the killing looks random. On the other, well, Cassie is seeing evidence that it could have been premeditated. And when a suspect is quickly identified, and then seemingly offs himself, Cassie gets even more suspicious.

Nothing too original, so far, you're thinking. But in this Barbet Schroeder movie, the best element is the "who" in the whodunit. It's a semi-open mystery, in which we meet the killers right away. At least, we assume they're the killers.

They are studly Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling) and shy nerd Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt). Pretending to be sworn enemies at school, they're actually in murderous league. Justin, who concocts absinthe drinks and studies forensic science for fun, and Richard, who picks up women at the drop of a hat, meet regularly in a remote house on a sheer bluff.

They've been planning something bad for a long time.

What is it between these two? They're weird, they're lonely (even when they're with others) and they hug each other a lot. But they like women. There's one thing that bonds them ¿ their parents don't pay much attention to their comings and goings. (And let that be a lesson to all of us parents.)

Screenwriter Tony Gayton (who also directed the documentary "Athens Georgia: Inside/Out") may well have been inspired by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the infamous, teenage duo of the 1920s who killed a 14-year-old for purely intellectual reasons. Leopold and Loeb also inspired the characters in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope." So maybe it's time for their descendents to claim a little royalty money. Or at the least, they could sit down and enjoy this movie, which turns potentially forgettable formula into something strangely diverting.

MURDER BY NUMBERS (R, 121 minutes) ¿ Contains grisly forensic evidence, violence, sexual scenes and obscenity. Area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company