Murder by Numbers was directed by Barbet Schroeder (Barfly, Single White Female), written by Tony Gayton (Faster, The Salton Sea), and stars Sandra Bullock (Gravity, Bird Box), Ben Chaplin (Dorian Grey, Thin Red Line), Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049, Drive), Michael Pitt (Ghost in the Shell, The Last Days of American Crime), Agnes Bruckner (Immortal, The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson), R.D. Call (Waterworld, Code of Honor), and Chris Penn (Footloose, Reservoir Dogs). It follows two detectives as they work to solve a murder case committed by a pair of high school students.
The Plot: Plotting is what it says in the title, by the numbers, despite the potential for a riveting game of cat and mouse. High school classmates Richard (Gosling) and Justin (Pitt) want to prove they can commit the perfect crime. Detectives Cassie (Bullock) and Sam (Chaplin) are sent to investigate a crime the two have already committed in which they purposely left some DNA that set up their drug dealer, Ray (Penn), and Richard. After Richard worms his way out, Cassie becomes obsessed with him and is taken off the case by Captain Cody (Call). Between the boys is Lisa (Bruckner), who causes tension while the investigation rages on.
The Characters: are all over the place, with Cassie the blandest: a detective with a pained past that has little bearing on Murder by Numbers’ plot. She’s difficult to empathize with since she has a habit of treating everyone like a pawn. Sam, the new guy on the CSI team is more objective until he isn’t. Richard is the most intriguing of the bunch; with an undeniable swagger about him, always witty, yet condescending at the same time. Although moderately well done, his backstory and arc are cliches, little attention from his parents, very intelligent, womanizer.
Justin is his foil, but shares a lot of backstories; the main difference is that he has social issues. Lisa only exists to drive an unbelievable wedge between the two. Performances keep the movie watchable; Bullock is surprisingly believable as a detective, and Chaplin shows his aptitude. The best acting is from Pitt and Gosling who bring emotion to such banal characters.
The Crime: The crime is the centerfold of Murder by Numbers, but thoroughly unsurprising. As mentioned, the bored kids with little to do conceit has been done before; and the movie doesn’t do very much to set itself apart from the others. They do the same thing, act the same way, and end up in the same place. Alongside the derivation from numerous other movies, the investigation, while potentially interesting, sways from well set-up to convenient.
So many things are articulately placed for the detectives to find that it makes any suspicions the police force may have seem conspiratorial. However, the kids purposely place evidence implicating them which is just stupid and contrary to how they were portrayed up to that point. Perspectives, aside from Cassie’s change at the drop of a hat, make everyone else look inept.
The Technics: Technically Murder by Numbers is cookie-cutter stuff. It’s competently directed, decently paced, and well-produced. What brings it down is the subpar writing in many critical spots, most egregiously in the last 15 minutes, and a general feeling that the only people who really had any faith in the production were the actors. Dialogue, cinematography, music, and direction all come off as something churned out for the sake of a potential return on investment for the producers. The concept isn’t new by any means, but some effort would have gone a long way.
Murder by Numbers does little different from others of its ilk. Despite some convincing performances from the four leads, everything is efficiently done at the cost of memorability. I would’ve given a higher score for its competence, but a bad ending spoils even that bit of praise.