Sandra Bullock, Hollywood's Miss Congeniality, wipes the smile off her face in Murder by Numbers, a psychological thriller in which she plays a homicide detective who always gets her man. Bullock's Cassie Mayweather was once a crime victim herself ' a brutal crime that haunts her the way those silent lambs haunted Clarice Starling. Of course, her very name suggests that Cassie "may weather" the storms of her past. In the meantime, she's hell on wheels to anyone who would stand between her and a perpetrator. "The hyena," colleagues call her, female hyenas apparently being endowed with mock penises. (The things you learn at the movies!) In the early part of Murder by Numbers, you can practically hear Cassie's balls clank together when she walks. She's a one-woman brass band.
At least she would be if Bullock had it in her. Whenever this thoroughly engaging actress ventures out of comedy, as she did in The Net and The Vanishing, she tends to get cheerfully lost. It's not that she isn't tough enough to play a private detective; some of the best scenes in Murder by Numbers are when Cassie is, say, shoving her new partner (Ben Chaplin, reviving the milquetoast he played in Birthday Girl) into bed, then shoving him out again. No, it's that Bullock isn't weak enough to play a private detective who's never gotten over her own brush with murder, many years ago. Perhaps to her credit, Bullock has one of the least troubled faces in movies today, the muscles relaxing into a Botox-free zone. Compare that to, say, Jodie Foster or Ashley Judd, the other participants in this month's women-in-charge trend. Their expressions, pale and fierce, are stretched as tight as drums.
Luckily, Bullock isn't asked to carry Murder by Numbers, despite having served as its executive producer. That task falls to Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt, who play Leopold and Loeb if Leopold and Loeb had shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch. Leopold and Loeb, you may recall, were a pair of poor little rich kids in 1920s Chicago who tried to amuse themselves by committing the perfect crime. Surprisingly inept given their pretensions to Nietzschean superiority, they wound up in jail, but not before murdering a young boy. Murder by Numbers takes the homoerotic undertones that have echoed through cinematic depictions of this case, from Alfred Hitchcock's Rope to Tom Kalin's Swoon, and runs with them. Gosling's Richard and Pitt's Justin have read their Nietzsche and their Dostoyevsky, but what really gets them off is each other. And murder is how they choose to consummate their love.
Not that they realize they're doing that. What makes Murder by Numbers worth watching, from beginning to end, is the movie's reluctance to pin these two miscreants to the wall. Director Barbet Schroeder, whose Reversal of Fortune left Claus von Bulow as enigmatic as it found him, gives Gosling and Pitt plenty of room to roam, and their performances are both rather familiar and quite strange. With his red-leather jacket and arched eyebrows, Gosling seems to be channeling James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, which would make Pitt Sal Mineo. And it's the tenderness buried beneath layers of cold-blooded animosity that makes them such an interesting couple. If Leopold and Loeb have fused in our minds over the years, the latter name seemingly hatched from the former, Richard and Justin can't seem to decide who's calling the shots, who's the butch and who's the bitch.
Richard's the extroverted one ' an asshole, but an outgoing asshole. And Justin's the introverted one, the brain. Alas, like most Hollywood movies, Murder by Numbers won't settle for smart or even brilliant; nothing short of genius will do. And so Justin seems to have watched and memorized every single episode of "CSI" while poring through forensics textbooks. After listening to him discuss iodine gum and silver-transfer sheets, you expect this whiz kid to concoct the crime of the century. Instead, he and Richard just hit someone over the head with a hammer while wearing hazardous-waste suits, more a thrill-kill than a skill-kill, although neither of them seems to get much of a thrill out of it. And they don't seem to realize that there's such a thing as too perfect a crime, all the pieces falling neatly into place. Bullock's Cassie can smell that kind of perfection a mile away.
If only Murder by Numbers had a little of that perfection. It's a rather routine piece of work, movie-making by numbers. And it gives away all its secrets much too early on, expecting us to occupy ourselves with Cassie's perfect crime-solving. But the whole cat-and-mouse thing doesn't really cut the cheese; the script isn't near ingenious enough. Instead, the movie's pleasures are almost incidental ' Cassie saying to her fellow police officers, "I gotta take a piss," or Richard cradling Justin's head in his hand while holding a gun to his neck.
"Orphans with credit cards" is how Cassie describes this latest pair of disaffected youth, whose parents barely notice they're there. But when you strip away the Nietzschean and Dostoyevskian nods in the direction of Columbine, you're left with something even more harrowing: murder as some kind of science experiment or math problem. They did it for extra credit.
And for each other.