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Should I Watch..? 'Murder By Numbers' (2002)

Updated on April 4, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Poster for "Murder By Numbers"
Poster for "Murder By Numbers"

What's the big deal?

Murder By Numbers is a psychological crime drama released in 2002 written by Tony Gayton and is loosely based on the infamous real-life Leopold & Loeb murders in 1924. It centres around two wealthy students who plan and commit "the perfect murder" and their ensuing battles with the police during their investigation. Produced and directed by Barbet Schroeder (who also directed Single White Female), the movie stars Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt and Ben Chaplin. Despite mostly negative reviews when it was released, the movie just about made a profit at the global box office but in truth, the film remains a blip on some otherwise respectable careers.


2 stars for Murder By Numbers

What's it about?

Richard Haywood and Justin Pendleton are two wealthy high school students who wish to prove their intellectual superiority to others by committing the perfect crime. After murdering a young woman, they plant evidence to frame Richard's drug-dealing associate Ray Feathers and burn any evidence linking them to the crime. The case is given to seasoned homicide detective Cassie Mayweather and her new partner Sam Kennedy.

Despite suspecting the two students, Cassie can't quite link them definitively to the case. She begins to face pressure from Captain Rod Cody and the Assistant DA Al Swanson (who happens to be Cassie's ex) who fear that the two students' lawyers or their influential parents could end their careers on harassment charges. Undeterred, Cassie puts her own life at risk in order to prove her hunch but can she manage to complete the case without paying the ultimate price?


What's to like?

This film does feel like a showcase for the younger cast members than the more seasoned professionals. Gosling and Pitt are magnetically creepy as the killers and provide a good foil for Bullock's rather bland 'troubled cop' routine. Gosling, of course, has gone on to become a bona fide A-lister while Pitt has fashioned himself as a jack-of-all-trades in respected TV shows like Boardwalk Empire and various indie dramas. But it would be here where they both shone brightly and certainly more than their co-stars.

The film's clear parallels with the aforementioned Leopold & Loeb case (as well as the Hitchcock adaptation of the play inspired by the case, Rope) gives the movie a chilling authenticity. However, the film-makers have ramped up the dramatic elements such as the creepy cliff-top house whilst ignoring the supposed homosexual relationship between the two antagonists. I suppose this make Murder By Numbers more interesting but hardly gripping.

Michael Pitt with a seriously bad haircut in "Murder By Numbers"
Michael Pitt with a seriously bad haircut in "Murder By Numbers"

Fun Facts

  • The title refers to a song of the same name by The Police which was about plotting the perfect crime, obviously mirroring the film's plot.
  • Ryan Gosling genuinely threw up during the filming of the initial murder.
  • Richard's car is a 1966 Mustang, the same type of car driven by Steve McQueen in the legendary car chase in Bullitt although McQueen drove the 1968 edition. Gosling asked if the car could be used in the movie as he is a massive fan of McQueen.

What's not to like?

As good as Pitt & Gosling are, they are let down by the two protagonists. Chaplin looks wet and lost while Bullock is seriously miscast as Mayweather, though she tries her best playing against her goodie-two-shoes type. The film attempts to give her personality by throwing her into bad relationships and a muddied past but I remained unconvinced.

The story also doesn't add up. Considering that the boys had planned the perfect crime, why would a footprint be left behind at the scene or why go through the trouble of committing further crimes and risk implicating yourself? For all its based on actual events, there was little about Murder By Numbers that actually felt based in reality. Come the end of the film (which was so corny, it had 'Linda McCartney' stamped on it!), it had gotten so silly that I'd lost all interest. Not that the film is a gripper anyway - because it runs like your standard episode of Columbo where you already know who the killer is, there aren't any real shocks when the killer is unmasked. And because the film needs tension, a backwards procedural is never going to generate any so why was this story-telling device utilised? Why not keep the killers identity a secret?

Director Barbet Schroeder
Director Barbet Schroeder | Source

Should I watch it?

I wouldn't bother. It's interesting to see Bullock play so heavily against her type and to see Gosling's stratospheric career progression from this (no fashionable beards to be seen here!) but generally speaking, Murder By Numbers is pretty forgettable. Perhaps if they had stuck closer to the inspiration or filmed it as a period piece, it might have been something a bit different but as it is, this film is sadly less than the sum of its parts.

Great For: teenage girls, Ryan Gosling fans, laughing at Michael Pitt's haircut

Not So Great For: Sandra Bullock's range, crime dramas, homicide detectives

What else should I watch?

Crime dramas based on real events aren't exactly rare beasts so trying to find good ones is a bit tricky. Rope is a good place to start, although it too is inspired by the Leopold & Loeb case. Zodiac is also a decent take on real events, the unsolved Zodiac Killer murders in San Francisco in the late 60's and early 70's.

For those wanting a bit more in the way of action and a bit less reality, try the original Dirty Harry with the classic Clint Eastwood dialogue or even any of the buddy-cop comedies that flood the screen with explosions and gunfire. Beverly Hills Cop substitutes drama for comedy, Bullock for Eddie Murphy and Gosling for... err, Judge Reinhold while Bad Boys sees Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as a couple of hot-heads in Miami on the trail of high-spending drug dealers.

Main Cast

Sandra Bullock
Det. Cassie Mayweather
Ben Chaplin
Det. Sam Kennedy
Ryan Gosling
Richard Haywood
Michael Pitt
Justin Pendleton
Chris Penn
Ray Feathers

Technical Info

Barbet Schroeder
Tony Gayton
Running Time
115 minutes
Release Date (UK)
28th June, 2002
Crime, Drama

© 2015 Benjamin Cox


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