The Leopold-Loeb shocker of 1924, in which a pair of arrogant Chicago college students murdered a boy to show off their intellectual superiority, has been the root of at least three previous movies, all of them truer and more harrowing views of dark symbiosis. There was Alfred Hitchcock's narrative experiment, Rope, Richard Fleischer's durable Compulsion and 1992's Swoon, which played up the homophobic atmosphere of the killers' sensational trial. The sick-boy bonding in Numbers adds nothing to the canon. In fact, it's not even the focus of director Barbet Schroeder (Desperate Measures, Single White Female) and writer Tony Gayton, who are more interested in their troubled policewoman's personal issues than in two high school kids trying to get away with murder for the hell of it.
Since driving the explosives-rigged bus in Speed, Bullock has spent eight years building her brand name in mediocrities like Hope Floats, The Net and Miss Congeniality. Here again 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. We've seen enough gender bending and role reversals at the movies that we're not surprised (much less delighted) when she strong-arms her green new partner, Sam (Ben Chaplin), into bed, then throws him out when it's over. These days, stubborn, dogged cops are obviously manufactured in both sexes.
The homicidal boys come from the same discount store where Gayton and Schroeder picked out Cassie. Justin (Michael Pitt) is the standard bookish outcast with a head full of Rimbaud poems and Nietzschean power fantasies, and Richard (Ryan Gosling) is the manipulative control freak who has swept his conscience under the rug. 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 is on the job, after all. She understands when a severed finger has been planted for effect and just when to analyze a crucial puddle of vomit. But in the absence of any real psychological tension, we're left to contemplate Cassie's own traumas, which stem from an old case of attempted murder.
Schroeder tries vainly to spice up the proceedings. A baboon mauls his heroine. A teen-age girl (Agnes Bruckner) drives a predictable wedge between the young killers. But Schroeder's past as a French filmmaker partial to tedious intellectual exercises is still catching up with him: Three-fourths of the way into the proceedings, he gives us an endless police interrogation sequence that would try Columbo's patience, and the homoerotic undertones he injects are coy, at best.
Murder by Numbers 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 cliffhanger 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.