Attempting to balance the cerebral with the suspenseful, Alex de la Iglesia's "The Oxford Murders" is a wonderfully compelling mess of a movie. It's tricky trying to bond Hitchcockian flair with lecture hall semantics, but the director works his tricks with ace visual consideration. However, there are gaps in characterization that are too wide to comfortably leap, with more attention paid to the homework of the plot than its human appeal.
Off to the University of Oxford to continue his education, Martin (Elijah Wood) seeks the guidance of his idol, Arthur Seldom (John Hurt), a leading mind in the mystery of mathematics. Hoping to convince the professor to become his thesis supervisor, Martin instead encourages the ire of the old man, who has little patience for an untested mind. Happening upon the dead body of an acquaintance together, Martin and Arthur hastily strike up a partnership; both men are eager to deduce the motive of the killer but incomplete clues quickly lead to a second homicide. With numerous suspects in play, Martin is overwhelmed, but keen to prove himself, soon distracted by an unstable musician (Julie Cox) and a sexed-up nurse (Leonor Watling) -- two mysterious women who take immediate interest in the diminutive American.
An adaptation of Guillermo Martinez's popular novel, "The Oxford Murders" is a knotty whodunit that plays into a heated "Da Vinci Code" formula as the director follows Martin and Arthur uneasily arranging a language of logic to best serve the investigation, engaging in a war of vast minds while the clock ticks down to another murder. Having orchestrated numerous dark comedies before ("Day of the Beast," "Ferpect Crime"), Alex de la Iglesia plays it mostly straight here, trusting in the long-windedness of the script and its inherent alien nature to those who might've failed to pick up on the intricacies of "logic series" while in school. The story is wet with theorems, symbols, and clues, which compel the director to accentuate the thriller overtones, electing to Hitch up the joint with a series of dazzling suspense set pieces, each pasted together with meticulous artistry and operatic detail.
When the film craves excitement, it does a superb job getting the viewer into the thick of things, displaying two men of analytical minds squaring off over the vagueness of murder, poking around each other for vulnerabilities. The acting services the exposition well (no shock here, but Hurt sells the complexity with more refinement than Wood), but the brutally abrupt nature of the editing erodes the performances. The director pushes through moments hurriedly, allowing natural relationships to wilt, turning the film into a tiresome arrangement of whiplash motivations and reactions. The most troublesome area in the film concerns Martin and his bewildering sexual pull. The character has to beat the ladies off with a stick in the movie, without anything in the script explaining why these two women would so quickly bend to his needs. Perhaps an hour or two was gutted from the film before release, as the entire picture retains a texture of stitches, feebly covering for missing information.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation is moody and welcomingly crisp, with strong shadow detail helping to solidify textures on costumes and make sense of the darker passages of the film, where the mystery heats up. Colors are pronounced and eager, with reds and blues pushing through wonderfully, sustaining the cinematographic intention of the piece. Detail is strong throughout (Hurt has a face made for HD), with facial responses easy to read, while providing a nice sense of history as the camera bombs around the campus, drinking in the collegiate landscape.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix holds the suspenseful ambiance tightly, with a nice presentation of scoring cues heating up the mix as needed. Directionals are limited, but lecture hall interiors retain a pleasing echoed quality to open the production up, while traditional moments of unease bring about a more concentrated density to the action. Dialogue exchanges sound thin and unconvincing at times, but nothing is lost in the mix, with all the intellectual back and forth maintained to satisfaction. A Spanish track is also available.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
"Making Of" (17:20) is actually a neat overview of production achievements, using a mix of cast and crew interviews and fly-on-the-wall BTS footage to provide viewers with an idea of the filmmaking effort. The featurette also acts as an informative overview of the director, who I've never seen profiled this extensively before.
"Criminal Math of Oxford" (10:14) meets up with author Guillermo Martinez, who walks viewers through the symbols and solutions found in the film.
"Interviews" (13:45) speaks with John Hurt, Elijah Wood, Leonor Watling, and Alex de la Iglesia. The conversations are conducted on-set and are basically extensions of the topics introduced in the making-of featurette.
"Abbey Road" (2:26) turns the spotlight on composer Roque Banos, who constructed the film's score inside the world-famous, Beatle-approved recording studio.
"Waiting for Alex" (18:12) is a bit of a joke featurette, with the director missing an interview opportunity, leaving writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria and author Martinez to fill time with their own thoughts on the feature.
"Professor Kalman" (4:30) singles out the most macabre character of the film, showing off the extensive make-up needed to bring him to life.
"Set Design" (3:27) displays pre-production drawings from the feature, covering a range of intricately designed interiors.
"Kalman's Make-Up" (4:32) heads back into Kalman country, reheating BTS footage seen elsewhere on the BD.
"HDNet: A Look at 'The Oxford Murders'" (4:43) is a short making-of commercial for the film, used for pay cable purposes.
"Behind the Scenes" (6:14) is a series of brief featurettes highlighting interviews with cast and crew conducted within a promotional environment.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"The Oxford Murders" builds to a few revelations, as the thriller handbook demands. None are as convincing as the mystery that precedes it, but there is an unsettling end point of chaos, leaving the viewer with something bitter to chew on. It's a sharp ending to a dulled film, successfully capping off a picture that makes intellectual superiority and logical discussion into an occasionally snappy ride.