Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 18, 2002
Count on Her

Sandra Bullock is the heart of the frigid Murder by Numbers.

By Kristian Lin

Is there an A-list star in Hollywood who gets less respect for her work than Sandra Bullock? Since Speed and While You Were Sleeping made her a star in the mid-’90s, her celebrity has been based on her considerable ability to be cute and funny in movies. Audiences obviously want to see her like that — how else can you explain the $100-million hit status of Miss Congeniality? — and you can’t blame them. Thing is, people know that it’s hard for cute actresses to de-cute themselves, so they aren’t that interested in seeing them try to stretch their range. Thus, many of Bullock’s movies that cast her against type fly under the public’s radar, and lots of people miss her more interesting work — for example her role as a hard-partying alcoholic in 28 Days.

Murder by Numbers seems likely to continue this trend. A gimmick, like the one in Panic Room, might help the movie’s marketing. Indeed, the title and poster art lead you to think that there’s some sort of arcane numerological motive or motif (a la Seven) behind the killings, but there isn’t. The film is really a thriller in name only: It moves at a deliberate pace, it doesn’t keep us in suspense as to the murderers’ identities, and it’s freezing to the touch, visually and emotionally. All of this makes it a poor candidate for a runaway hit.

That’s too bad, because Bullock is fantastic here. She plays Cassie Mayweather, a homicide cop in a coastal California city. She has a caustic sense of humor and antisocial tendencies stemming from serious psychological problems. The constant chip on her shoulder inspires her male colleagues to nickname her “The Hyena,” the explanation of which leads to a pretty funny joke. When a local woman is found murdered, all the clues point to an impulsive act by a lone, uneducated sexual pervert. Cassie, however, sees elements of planning in the apparently unplanned crime, and she follows the trail of evidence to two snotty high-school kids.

Richard (Ryan Gosling) is the rich confident jerk with social clout, while Justin (Michael Pitt) is the sullen, distinctly feminine brains of the outfit. Much like the killers in Hitchcock’s Rope, they act out of boredom, amorality, and a desire to prove their intellectual superiority by murdering a complete stranger and then leading the police to the wrong man. Their relationship is riddled with intimacies and betrayals. They aren’t sleeping together, but they’re so emotionally dependent on each other that they might as well be (again, like the killers in Rope). The two actors do impressive work, but the script’s treatment of the couple is derivative, homophobic, and uninspired — really, couldn’t Justin’s reading material contain something less pedestrian than Nietzsche and Rimbaud? The movie spends too much time with the boys at the beginning, trying to establish character but the script renders that a worthless task.

The movie doesn’t take flight until they meet the police. Richard and Justin are smart criminals, but they’re not as smart as they think they are. The deftly written interrogation scenes are showcases for Bullock’s technical skills (check the fraction of an inch by which she lowers her gaze when Richard says something amiss and first fires her suspicion) and her intelligent, authoritative presence — when she catches Justin at school and he’s reluctant to talk to her, she maneuvers him into a corner by calmly walking toward him and making him back up.

Yet the character’s professional brilliance is offset by her personal turmoil, and Bullock’s just as good with that end of the job. She’s always had an affinity for lonely characters, but she’s never played one as standoffish as this. Her talent for verbal comedy is put to novel use portraying a character who uses her sense of humor as a weapon. She needed to be more purposeful and less playful in the sequence in which Cassie seduces her new detective partner (Ben Chaplin) and then rudely kicks him out of bed.

For the most part, though, Bullock’s determinedly and superbly non-cute. The case stirs up Cassie’s demons because Richard reminds her of someone from her past, and she becomes increasingly aware of her own personal involvement. Bullock’s work with the character’s defense mechanisms is immensely detailed, yet when she loses her poise, the directness of her emotions is surprisingly forceful — her furious outburst when her partner uncovers the secret from her past, or the violation she feels when Richard catches her off-duty, sniffs out her psychic weak spot, and forces himself on her sexually. The character is always fighting to maintain her emotional control, even at the climax of the movie, when she’s hanging off a cliff ledge and in danger of falling to her death. (She shuts her eyes tight, as if to keep from crying. Nice.) In the end, Murder by Numbers is less about its murders than it is about this woman facing the defining trauma of her life. Sandra Bullock responds with what may be the best performance of her career, and certainly the most moving one.

Email this Article...

Back to Top

Copyright 2002 to 2018 FW Weekly.
3311 Hamilton Ave. Fort Worth, TX 76107
Phone: (817) 321-9700 - Fax: (817) 335-9575 - Email Contact
Archive System by PrimeSite Web Solutions