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Crime management: Bullock and Gosling in Murder by Numbers.

Killer Style
By Shawn Stone

Murder by Numbers
Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Spring is here, and with it comes the latest film about brutal, senseless violence. In Murder by Numbers, teen killers match wits with a dogged homicide detective, carefully committing a random murder and laying out clues to confuse and misdirect the ensuing investigation.

The killers are a precocious pair. Justin (Michael Pitt androgynous again, as in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) is too smart, Richard (Ryan Gosling) is too charming, and both are too rich and unsupervised for their own good. They know they’re better than everyone else, and can do what they like with impunity. The 20th century may be dead, but the Nietzchean gay teen killer stereotype, born of 1920’s thrill killers Leopold and Loeb and revisited repeatedly on stage and screen, refuses to die. One would think Columbine would have provided more contemporary insights into homicidal adolescents, but then the killers wouldn’t have been able to drive expensive cars, eat caviar, or sip absinthe while musing over Man and Superman.

The cop, Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock), is smart, tough, and deeply troubled. No one likes her, not even, it seems, herself. (Cassie’s idea of fun is drinking Scotch alone or watching Matlock.)While the rest of the police, including partner Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), stupidly follow the trail of false evidence planted by the real killers, she zeros in on the kids. Cocky, blonde Richard really gets under her skin; she sees his wealth and good looks as a mask of evil even before there is any evidence. Of course, as things develop, this relates to a tragedy in her past; in fact, it’s the reason Cassie became a cop. There’s nothing groundbreaking in any of this, but the familiar is nicely revisited, with good acting and some nifty cinematic tricks.

To its credit, the film is tonally consistent. The color scheme is dominated by blues and grays, and the mood is pure malevolence. Director Barbet Schroeder indulges his taste for baroque violence with startling images of the killers going about their messy work in homemade hazmat suits (an absurdity better passed over by those who prefer their crime films realistic), and, memorably, a crazed, screaming baboon with bright red blood dripping from its mouth. More to the point, however, Schroeder doesn’t allow the charismatic teen killers to become cuddly. They charm only their peers and parents, earning no more sympathy from the audience than their brutal crime allows.

The spell is never broken by intrusions of sentimentality, either, not even by the lead. Cassie is a total wreck, and though undoubtedly sympathetic, still difficult and not very likable. Credit Sandra Bullock, who also co-produced, with resisting the movie star’s prerogative to be loved. Like the character in the film, she would rather be respected.

The Headmistress Is Acting Funny

Directed by John McKay

This year’s early entry to the ever growing list of English films about unlikely romances is Crush, by first-time writer-director John McKay. Let’s hope the next wannabe to the Four Weddings and a Funeral prototype is more accomplished.

For starters, there’s the triteness of three good friends, all of whom are very different from each other except for the fact that they’re fortysomething and lonely. Kate (Andie MacDowell) is the dreamy headmistress of a picturesque prep school (the film takes place in the English Cotswolds); Janine (Imelda Staunton) is the chief constable fond of ’60s psychobabble; and Molly (Anna Chancellor) is the caustic, sophisticated town general practitioner.. Their weekly get-togethers involve too much drinking and not enough slapping sense into one another, as they take turns recounting their miserable sexual existences. The winner gets what looks like a case of truly awful English caramels.

Then love—in the unlikely form of 25-year-old Jed (Kenny Doughty)—appears for Kate, and while she’s swept away in a series of graveyard copulations, Janine and Molly think fast to devise a plan to save their friend from sheer madness and near-certain heartbreak. At this point, the movie delves into the somewhat serious, culminating in you-can-see-it-a-mile-away tragedy, and the jarring shift of tone from whimsical and romantic to melodramatic and tragic just doesn’t work. Maybe it’s McKay’s newness to the field, but I also think that these kind of suds don’t play the same without Barbara Stanwyck or Irene Dunne to carry the day.

Aside from the unevenness in tone, the movie is rife with incongruities and plain old bad writing. Who exactly is Jed, other than a sexy part-time organist and occasional mechanic or chauffeur (the movie shows him with cars a lot, but we don’t really know what relationship he has to them)? Without knowing anything about him, we can’t be sure whether or not Janine and Molly are right to interfere. What exactly does an English headmistress do—surely, the job isn’t merely frantic gropings in the coat closet and occasional board meetings, as it appears is the case with Kate. Why would the seemingly sensible Janine go along with Molly’s crueler jokes? What is it about English writers of late that makes them want to pack as many weddings as possible into their films? Crush is well-meaning, but such movies, as with likeminded acquaintances, are often the hardest to stomach.

—Laura Leon

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