Cinema Signal:

Read about the lady herself

. "Murder by Numbers"

Call it an imperfect movie about an attempted perfect crime. Emphasis on the "attempted". And, it's fun to watch the instincts of actress Sandra Bullock so beguilingly play with the instincts of a hardnose detective with an emotionally debilitating past. It's not just the good looks that get you; it's the personality. Just watch her through her frustrations, her unpopular intuitions, her fears and vulnerabilities.

Detective Cassie Mayweather (Bullock) arrives at a crime scene and takes it over like a crabby producer controlling his crew, throwing her weight around, issuing commands to her partner Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin) like he's fresh out of detective school. But he's not; and he's not as obsequious to her superior rank as his quiet demeaner might suggest. In any case, they both quickly recognize that the corpse, a female, wasn't killed in the woods by the river where she's found but was planted there along with some carefully controlled clues. But the one that might be more relevant is the pile of vomit on the hillside below the body, which Mayweather immediately assigns to Kennedy for lab analysis.

The audience is not going to be in doubt as long as the detectives are about who did it since this mystery is not about who did it but how and why and will the detectives find out. The clever young rascals, too bored with life as they see it, are fellow students Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling, "Remember the Titans") and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt, "Changing Lanes"). Pendleton is the genius whose plan for the perfect crime is eagerly adopted by Haywood, who is his equal on the scale of psychopathia.

Their planted clues lead the investigators down a merry path to an innocent janitor. What it doesn't deal with is the possibility of its neatness not corresponding to reality and raising doubts in a seasoned mind like Mayweather's. Trouble is, she's alone in her suspicions about these boys, and her reputation as "The Hyena", a nickname inspired by her ballsy, take-no-prisoners style doesn't help her convince her superiors who go for the obvious solution to the crime.

So, Mayweather's pursuit of the real killers is impeded by hardheaded, politically motivated department heads. Even partner Kennedy succumbs to the prevailing view and declares he won't partner with her after this case, but not before he succumbs to the pretty near devestating seductive powers that she applies to him one night in her houseboat livingroom.

The themes of psycho pathology and its bloody details are dealt with in a surprisingly delicate manner, as though to remain within the precincts of good taste. We are given the attractions of an irresistible personality as lead detective with a troubled past that controls her behavior; a handsome and smart partner/co-star to dwell on for the intimate turns the script goes into, and the self-indulgences of two killers embarking on their chosen careers by avoiding detection after a read of "Techniques of a Crime Scene Investigation". These are intellectual killers with huge gaps in social consciousness.

In their symbiotic relationship, they are convincingly portrayed. Gosling is scary in his relentless consistency as a driven, incipient killer with a demented need to prove his superiority through manipulation. Pitt conveys well the overlooked, twisted genius who gains self-confidence as he convinces himself of the perfection of his plan and his powers.

Though the story isn't new, the strength of these elements lend it enough mystery muscle to qualify it as a good entry in the genre. It gets away from director Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune") somewhat by striving to give every role some humanity and getting bogged down in the emotional confusions. There are instances in which director and actor seemed uncertain about which way to play it and Bullock is challenged in a few moments to find the right direction.

Fortunately, those moments are fragmentary and don't sink the dramatic ship. On balance, we have an interesting mystery that, perhaps, attempts too much; but better that than over-simplistic fare.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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