Stevi Costa, co-editor of 10YA, finally chose to re-view something she didn’t like or love in the first place. Why sit through a mediocre Sandra Bullock psychological thriller a second time through? Funny you should ask…
In the summer of 2002, I began working at the now-defunct Hollywood Video chain of video rental stores. I was pretty excited to have a job, because that meant I had money to spend recklessly on dumb shit. (Typical teenage girl shit: lots of makeup, clothes, music.) But since my love affair with independent cinema had begun the previous summer, I was also pretty excited to have access to free rentals of anything I wanted. Even though I worked at a retail chain, my Hollywood was designated as an “art house store,” which meant that we actually got a fair amount of indie titles and tons of foreign films. Those were the things I ended up renting most of the time – rarely bothering to watch any of the standard blockbusters that took up so much space on our rental wall each week.
So, given my love of indies and foreign films, why the fuck am I writing about Murder by Numbers this week, a dour Sandra Bullock thriller that’s basically an extended episode of Criminal Minds (only it doesn’t have Matthew Gray Gubler, and therefore sucks)?
Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt.
That’s fucking why.
I didn’t see Murder by Numbers in theatres, because I was too busy being an art house asshole, but I did rent it several times when it was released on DVD in the fall of 2002. I rented it several times not because I saw it once and loved it and needed to keep watching it again, but because it was one of those movies that I just never got around to watching until the 3th or 4th time I renewed my free rental. (The problem of free rentals: you just take home stuff, and don’t care if you don’t watch it. I had this same problem with The Piano Teacher.)
The only reason I took it home in the first place was because my coworkers had recommended it, and the presence of a young Ryan Gosling was a pretty big seller for me. I’d seen his terrifying turn as a young neo-Nazi in 2001’s The Believer and was blown away by his performance. Gosling had been working in TV for years as a child actor, but The Believer was a breakout role that, I think, establishes a baseline for the kind of roles he’s best at: attractive, mysterious men, with something deeply, deeply flawed about them. This is the kind of man he plays so well later in his career in films like Half Nelson, Blue Valentine and Drive. Gosling is best when he’s not talking so much, when he can act through his (still) boyish eyes and the physicality of his body. I’ll tell you that I don’t care much for his mainstream turns. I don’t care much for him in The Notebook, or Crazy Stupid Love. Those roles are drawn in broad strokes, and they’re a waste of Gosling’s subtlety.
But I can understand, too, that Gosling has a certain charisma that plays well in those roles, and it’s that charisma that really shines in Murder by Numbers, where he seems to be playing some earlier, more soulless version of his Crazy Stupid Love womanizer in young murder Richard Haywood – a bored rich kid who literally believes he can get away with murder. The scene where Bullock’s character questions him in the gym about his $600 shoes is a real showcase of Gosling’s talents. His line readings are smarmy, but somehow likeable. His eyes shine with a hopeful innocence, even as his mouth seems to curl villainous. He made me want him to get away with it – that’s how good Gosling is in this mediocre thriller.
Michael Pitt’s performance is also pretty spectacular. I was first introduced to him the previous summer in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where he was a stellar Tommy Gnosis, and his 2003 release, The Dreamers, would go on to become one of my favorite films of all time. Pitt plays Gosling’s co-conspirator, the brains behind the operation: a philosophy geek, testing the limits of morality, who hangs out with a rich asshole only because they’re both interested in murder. Pitt’s a more sensitive actor than Gosling in many ways, with big blue eyes that look like you’re seeing centuries of history through them and a cherubic pout that makes him seem, at times, like a Dutch painting. (NB: I’d love to see Michael Pitt in Scarlett Johansson’s role in Girl with the Pearl Earring.) His best moments in the film are his opening monologue about philosophy, which plays as cold and intellectual and provides a nice counterpoint to later scenes where he tearfully realizes that Richard has betrayed him in pursuit of his own self-preservation. Michael Pitt is a champion on-screen crier, and he’s got some great man-cries in this film. Those century-old eyes can also be cold and terrifying, and there are some scenes in Murder by Numbers where Pitt is genuinely scary just with a look. That’s great acting, and makes him a joy to watch as a lead in this film, and a perfect counterpoint to Gosling’s smarmy asshole.
The worst actor in this film is Sandra Bullock, who has given herself some serious constraints in her creation of the Tough Lady Cop role. One such limitation is her ridiculous no-nudity clause, which actually made the film’s producers have to change her character into a survivor of abuse just because she didn’t want to take her shirt off. True story: that was not her character’s original backstory, and I can’t even begin to explain how problematic I find writing something like that in to a narrative that doesn’t need it is. I have a standard complaint about actresses with no nudity clauses in their contracts, and it’s this: please do your fucking job and be an actor. That means you have to use your body to do things your character would do, like actually take your clothes off when you’re having consensual sex in a film. I can understand arguing for the excision of a scene where nudity is gratuitous and doesn’t serve the plot. But when you’re fucking someone in your own home, generally some clothing gets removed. I have no interest in seeing Sandra Bullock’s breasts at all, actually, but I do have an issue when an actor’s morals get in the way of them actually doing their job. Another example of nudity clauses bugging the shit out of me and, I think, really ruining films: Jessica Alba inSin City. Hired to play a stripper. Has a no-nudity clause. Therefore, doesn’t strip. This is not the character, and this movie is already R-rated and basically about sex and crime. How do you, as an actor, accept a job to play a stripper and then not strip? Again, I don’t really want to see Jessica Alba’s breasts. It’s not about her body at all, but about the body of the character. The actor’s body is an instrument, and to act without the body is to act out of tune.
In the Sandra Bullock case with Murder by Numbers, the script had to be rewritten to give her character a reason to not take off her shirt during sex. The new character dimension that the Tough Lady Copy is a survivor of abuse with either a brother, ex-husband, or father as the perpetrator (this is not clear to me in the film) strikes me as a particularly limiting choice for Bullock, who is not a strong enough dramatic actress to imbue this dimension with any depth. It’s a character note that could render a great performance, but Bullock’s dour and dead-eyed. All of her line readings are flat. She basically seems dead in this film. And maybe that works, in some sense, for the Tough Lady Cop role, but it’s also boring as shit. It’s really hard to care about her in any way when she gives you no affective dimensions to latch onto. She makes it easy to root for Pitt and Gosling because her performance is so flat.
I can imagine if this were a TV show, there’d be room to grow the role, and it wouldn’t seem so limiting. I was thinking about this performance in comparison to Anna Torv’s Olivia Dunham on Fringe, who I think faced similar problems of dourness and dead eyes in the first season of Fringe. But Torv managed to grow a kind of sweetness and wry humor into her Olivia during the second season that made her performance more dynamic, which was then ameliorated even more in later seasons when she got to play two characters. (Which, honestly, made me realize she actually could act. I hadn’t been sure until I met Fauxlivia.) But Bullock has only 120 minutes to make me like her, and she never actually achieves it.
So it’s really disappointing that she doesn’t die at the end, and that instead it’s Ryan Gosling who plunges onto some of the worst CGI rocks I’ve ever seen.
This is not a film I particularly like, not in 2002 and not now, but it is worth it for Gosling and Pitt’s performances, which are both too good for something this mediocre.
Michael Pitt’s hair in the opening scene made me laugh so hard. I’ve gotten so used to his Boardwalk Empire/2012 Spring Prada slicked back look that I totally forgot he used to look like a philosophical stoner.
I really appreciate that the costumer basically made Ryan Gosling look like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause after Michael Pitt rats him out.
The plot of this movie doesn’t matter. At all. I didn’t even pay attention to it on this reviewing.
My husband came in towards the end of this viewing and asked me what the title meant. I thought for a minute and said, “I actually have no fucking idea.”
For a movie that was shot all over Southern California and the tri-county area specifically, I cannot get over how terribly fake all the water looks next to the cliff house set. The shoddy CGI work here made me laugh. A lot.
Wait, what the fuck was that thing with the monkey about? That monkey had very, very red nipples.
I give this movie 2 out of 5 Goslings.