Sandra Bullock's best dramatic performance to date and the intelligent direction of Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune," "Single White Female") are almost enough to lift the thrill-kill cat-and-mouser "Murder by Numbers" above its paint-by-numbers plot about cunning teenage sociopaths.
Breaking out of her America's sweetheart mold, Bullock digs deeply into the anguished psyche of her character, a hard-headed cop who still bears the physical and emotional scars from the day her drunk, abusive ex-husband stabbed her a dozen times and left her for dead in a ravine when she was in her early 20s.
Driven to become a homicide detective by the experience, she's the kind of investigator who refuses to become desensitized by her job. At the beginning of what becomes the complex investigation at the center of the film, she deliberately takes a moment at the scene of a murder to feel something for the victim -- to let the death affect her.
Troubled by the all-too-neat trail of detailed evidence (including unusual hair and carpet fibers) leading to a high school janitor who apparently killed himself too, Bullock bucks her superiors who want to close the case. She has her eye on a pair of suspiciously indifferent kids at the high school.
"Murder by Numbers" follows formula to a fault -- to many faults, actually -- as Schroeder tracks the investigation from both sides.
We know from the opening scene that the Leopold and Loeb-like killers are a bored, brazen rich brat (Ryan Gosling) and a disturbed, sexually ambiguous genius outcast (Michael Pitt) who make a secret pact based on their belief that "one cannot live fully without embracing suicide and crime." We know they've studied forensic techniques and carefully planted misleading evidence. We also know from far too early on where they've slipped up and how they'll get caught.
But what screenwriter Tony Gayton fails to explain is why these kids are taunting Bullock since their plan was to commit the perfect crime. Turning the investigation into a game knocks the film's smarts down several notches and opens the door for the plot to turn disappointingly predicable and pedestrian in the last act.
Only in movies do criminals pick out a particular cop as their nemesis. Only in movies do bullheaded police chiefs and assistant district attorneys dismiss the opinions of seasoned detectives and demand that they get off the case. Only in a movie would a woman as tough as Bullock's character be shaken by a cocky teenage suspect coming on to her, and only in a movie would he be able to sneak up on her while she was staking him out!
A conventional trapping of cop movies that's actually put to good use here is the new partner (Ben Chaplin, "Birthday Girl"), who not only pries backstory out of our heroine, but also becomes an unwitting sex object when she wants to blow off steam -- a fact that reveals more about her personality than any "Why did you become a cop?" conversation.
Fresh off of a brilliant film about the violent downward spiral of gang kids in Medellin, Columbia ("Our Lady of the Assassins") Schroeder also dedicates more screen time than you might expect to exploring the manipulative, unspokenly sexualized, jealously-fueled relationship between the boys, who are well-written in Gayton's script and chillingly realized by Gosling and Pitt (whose specialty seems to be playing really screwed up kids, like those in "Bully" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch").
With such strong acting and execution, it's a pity that the plot of "Murder by Numbers" is so elementary and so plagued by moments any real cop would find laughable. "Detective, you might want to take a look downstairs," a uniformed officer tells Bullock when she arrives at a crime scene. When she goes downstairs, nobody's been there yet. How did they know she'd find something?
The movie really tanks in its semi-twist finale, which is so hackneyed, hole-riddled, predictable and badly blue-screened that even Bullock's best performance can't save it. If the story had measured up to the stars, this could have been a thriller in the vein of "Silence of the Lambs."