MURDER BY NUMBERS
directed by Barbet Schroeder with Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin opens April 19 at Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, and others
YOU MAY NOT know their names, but you'll likely recognize Leopold and Loeb's story: Two bored, wealthy young men of ambiguous sexual orientation decide to "free" themselves from the monotonous rule of society by committing the perfect murder. Then they arrogantly flaunt their crime in the face of the only individual perceptive enough to catch them.
Murder by Numbers is yet another revamping of the real-life 1924 Leopold and Loeb murders that inspired Hitchcock's 1948 Rope, 1959's Compulsion, and 1992's Swoon. None of those films is a classic, which almost justifies this latest crack at unearthing the tale's potentially bountiful psychodrama.
Unfortunately, as the arch, clinical tactician who unravels the homicide, Sandra Bullock is no James Stewart. (Frankly, she's no Angelina Jolie.) Bullock and Ben Chaplin, as Numbers' detectives, evince zero chemistry and no lofty motivations other than securing as much prison time as possible for the perps.
Fortunately, the high-school killers are astonishingly well inhabited by indie upstarts Ryan Gosling (Remember the Titans) and Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Pitt's sullen, book-smart goth is a very public foil to Gosling's popular smart-ass, but behind closed doors they're symbiotes, decorating their hideout with an eerie computer-generated composite of their faces and communicating with palpable homoerotic tension.
The boys also share half-baked, Nietzsche-derived ideas about class structures and criminology (not to mention a suicide pact should their scheme be foiled). The murder scenes are devastating. In plastic bodysuits and goggles, Pitt and Gosling just sink your stomach, as if you're watching videotape from Columbine. Given our cultural squeamishness about teen violence, let alone sex, it's even more shocking that Hollywood is willing to address such subjects.
Bullock has demons, too, and good ones. She receives collect calls to testify at the parole hearing of an old squeeze, then suffers flashbacks of disjointed images of stab wounds and heated quarrels. Factor in her wanton sexual advances toward new police partners, and you've got a sufficiently, even promisingly, disturbed heroine. Yet Bullock doesn't have the emotional resources to build from this minimalist blueprint (as Jodie Foster did so effectively in Silence of the Lambs).
Numbers neatly lays out the psychoses of both cat and mice, happy to do the heavy lifting on those pesky metaphors and symbols. It's a disappointingly reductive tendency (also true of Rope), one that will invariably lead to yet another Leopold and Loeb resurrection—next time a proper one, we hope.