Killer Instincts

'Murder By Numbers' pits two homicidal teens who think they're something special against Sandra Bullock, who really is.

April 19, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In 1924, two brilliant teen-agers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, planned and committed a murder as an intellectual game. Their case popularized the use of the phrase "thrill killers" and inspired several movies, most famously Compulsion (1959), starring Bradford Dillman, Dean Stockwell and Diane Varsi as a sympathetic girl.

With Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt and Agnes Bruckner in parallel roles, Murder By Numbers is a new-millennial California update. The killers here are high-school students, not college grads, but like Leopold and Loeb they want to pull a perfect crime to prove they're superior to society.

They resemble John Larroquette's gleeful, hard-shelled, homosexual snob in TV's The Practice, except they're vulnerable adolescents whose actions stem from terrible needs. "Orphans with credit cards" is what the script calls them, referring to their absent or distracted parents and their affluence. They're upscale latchkey kids whose latchkeys open Pandora's Box.

Two things set this film above the ruck of this spring's thrillers. First is the creepy skill of Gosling as lambent, cocksure Richard Haywood and Pitt as puffy, withdrawn Justin Pendleton. They offer spontaneity and surprise as the bosom buddies from hell.

Second, and even better, is the star performance of Sandra Bullock as homicide detective Cassie Mayweather, who senses something "off" about them. Bullock has never been more original or affecting. In this movie, she remains the girl next door, but the kind who lives in a houseboat and gazes enigmatically into her beer.

Too much movie talk in recent years, especially when centered on thrillers, highlights the directors. But the smartest thing director Barbet Schroeder does is give his actors room to breathe. His work isn't deft, tight or propulsive, and he lacks the imaginative grace that a thriller-maker must have to transmute the ugliness of, say, a shorn finger, into a haunting frisson.

Still, the sea air of the central California coast - the movie was filmed in the lovely town of San Luis Obispo - must have roused his zest for actors much as Newport's did when he made Reversal of Fortune (the only other Schroeder feature that has any zip at all). Tony Gayton's script weds Cassie's sleuthing to her private obsessions: Think Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. Schroeder is no Hitchcock, but he does let Bullock go all the way with her role.

Refreshingly crisp as she instructs her new partner Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin) about homicide, Bullock wins laughs from the brassy way Cassie confronts male chauvinists and the table-turning scenes in which she uses Sam as a sex object. What's both amusing and unsettling about Cassie's plainspoken aggression is the tight-mouthed mystery beneath it. Bullock's total identification with her character makes even prefab "depth" seem organic.

The filmmakers lay the movie out like an intricate tactical board game. Cassie and Sam draw up a serial-killer profile. Richard and Justin, knowing how the police operate, set up an adult acquaintance to fit that profile, with carefully planted and bizarrely specific clues. (How specific? Baboon hair.) But the boys don't count on Cassie being as intuitive as she is shrewd.

Bullock, Gosling and Pitt convey every secret ouch on their semi-hidden pressure points. The script puts the young actors at a disadvantage: It withholds certain information, like exactly who does what during the murder, and skims over other emotional data, like the extent of the boys' homosexual bond. Nonetheless, it's refreshing to see a suspense film that operates more on curiosity than on brute force or bravura technique. And it's macabre fun to see two fresh actors play psychological peek-a-boo in character - with Cassie, with their peers, and with each other.

Pitt's Justin, swigging home-brewed absinthe while spouting bold ideas out of Rimbaud, may overdo the billowy-cheeked softness of a shy aesthete-intellectual, but he grows stronger as the movie goes along; one of the movie's most daring shocks is that he gains in "normality" and confidence after the killing - to the extent of wooing Bruckner's perceptive teen-artist, Lisa.

And Gosling, so sensational as the Jew-turned-anti-Semite in The Believer (2001), gives a glittering psycho charge to Richard, the boy who has everything except empathy. The arrogant, impulsive Richard poses as a charming, devil-may-care lout. But he's also hungrily dependent and has genuine emotional awareness: He reads everyone, including Justin, better than Justin does. Gosling gives Richard a welcome surfeit of narcissistic energy - you can see how his brazen nihilism could be mistaken for anything-goes exuberance.

Bullock is phenomenal. She expresses the character's short-circuited emotions and warring instincts; she plays the subtext when the script tries to turn everything into just plain text. When she first claps eyes on Richard, her intensity signals something beyond a detective locking onto a guilty party.

Even when she's bullheaded, Bullock's Cassie never loses her connection to the audience, because the actress imbues her with the individualistic strength of a self-made woman. I wish the script didn't provide a skeleton key to the formation of her character, and that her climactic catharsis weren't so clunkily picturesque. Bullock, though, holds it all together with her fervor and intelligence. She appears to have created her own edict for Cassie's odyssey: Detective, detect thyself. The story may be about cold-blooded murder, but Bullock's pulsating performance is about the getting of wisdom.

Murder by Numbers

Starring Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin and Ryan Gosling

Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Rated R for violence, language, a sex scene and brief drug use

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 121 minutes

Sun Score ***

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