The perpetrators of the new Sandra Bullock vehicle Murder by Numbers could be hauled in on any number of charges, including plagiarism and child abuse. But their most obvious crime is first-degree dullness, giving us a thriller without thrills and a mystery devoid of urgent questions. This merely bloody piece of business spends two long, long hours in a picturesque California coastal town, trying to update the 1924 Leopold-Loeb thrill-killers case for the age of personal computers and high-tech crime labs, while mixing in exploitative aftertastes of In Cold Blood and the Columbine massacre. At the same time, the movie is burdened by an unwieldy subplot concerning its homicide-detective heroine's haunted memories and her inability to have decent relationships with men.
Since driving the explosives-rigged bus in Speed, Bullock has spent eight years building her brand name via mediocrities like Hope Floats, The Net, and Miss Congeniality, and once more the crudest commercial impulses of an obviously talented actress are on display. As Cassie Mayweather, a sharp-tongued, whiskey-swilling fanatic no one else on the force wants to work with, the doe-eyed Bullock quickly reduces her hard-shelled character to caricature. As much as the moviemakers would like it to be so, the fact that this demon-driven cop is a woman doesn't really distinguish her from the obsessive-compulsive Dirty Harrys and Andy Sipowiczs who preceded her.
The homicidal high school boys come from the same discount store where writer Tony Gayton and director Barbet Schroeder picked out Cassie. Justin (Michael Pitt) is the standard bookish outcast with a headful of Rimbaud poems and Nietzschean power fantasies, and Richard (Ryan Gosling) is the manipulative control freak who's swept his conscience under the rug. The moviemakers would have us believe they make for a fascinating combination, but it's really no more than a lethal one. When the boys choose a victim at random, kidnap and murder her, then leave a trail of clever false clues to mislead the police, we know they'll eventually get caught. Cassie Mayweather's on the job, after all. But in the absence of any real psychological tension, we're left to contemplate nothing more interesting than Cassie's own traumas, which stem from an old case of attempted murder.
Murder by Numbers is neither a mystery (we know whodunit from the start) nor a thriller (it produces all the tension of a quilting bee), and it eventually collapses under the weight of its pretensions and clichés. Not even Schroeder's literal cliff-hanger of a finale stirs up much excitement, and by the time Bullock's cop finally cleanses her soul and drives out her demons, you wish her well, but hope she doesn't come back for an encore.