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Murder by Numbers

Warner Bros. // R // September 26, 2002
List Price: $26.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted September 29, 2002 | E-mail the Author
Bored high school seniors with too much money and too little sense of morality: they're a recipe for trouble in any situation. But when detective Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) starts following up on clues in an apparent serial-killer murder case, she finds herself face to face with a couple of kids who may be up to something very unpleasant indeed. As Murder by Numbers unfolds, Cassie finds herself playing cat and mouse with a killer who may prove almost impossible to catch.

One of the things I enjoyed about Murder by Numbers was that it departs from the traditional thriller pattern of "uncover the identity of the killer." We know the killer – or think we do, anyway – from very early in the film; Murder by Numbers concentrates on other questions: "how did they do it," "what will they do next," and "will the detectives catch them." Because the full story behind the murder plot isn't presented right away, but is instead revealed bit by bit, the film is able to sustain a high degree of interest throughout the story. Adding to the points in its favor is the fact that not everything in the story unfolds exactly as one might expect; I won't reveal anything, but I'll make the observation that there are some twists that will keep viewers on their toes all the way to the end of the film.

Bullock does a fine job as the slightly obsessed detective on a tough case. Script-wise, making her partner on the case be a new transfer from a different department gives Bullock's character a reason to be explaining some of the procedural details of the investigation without being obviously doing so for the sake of the audience. I'll admit that my knowledge of police investigative procedure is entirely drawn from the movies and a few mystery novels, but all the same, the detective work in Murder by Numbers struck me as being realistic. Even as simple a thing as Cassie calling for backup before investigating a potentially dangerous situation adds to the sense of realism and, therefore, increases the tension level.

I could have done without the paint-by-numbers character development and obligatory romance in the story, though. The dramatic center of the story is the murder investigation, not the characters and their emotional problems; the character of Cassie could have been presented as being as prickly as she is in the film without adding in a traumatic past history to explain her personality, much less a sub-plot about her dealing with her own past. Bullock does an adequate job with the material in this part of the story, but it just doesn't add much to the film overall. Much the same goes for the romance part, though I did enjoy the fact that the relationship between Cassie and her partner Sam (Ben Chaplin) is taken in a slightly unconventional direction.

Video

The best word to describe the transfer of Murder by Numbers is "uneven." To its credit, the widescreen 1.85:1 transfer (in the widescreen edition) is anamorphically enhanced, but the actual image quality varies from good to poor throughout the film. Some scenes are clear and look great, but others show considerable amounts of noise; darker scenes also tend to look grainy. With edge enhancement added into the mix, the transfer ends up looking fairly blurry, missing detail in any shot past a close-up.

Whatever the flaws of the actual transfer, viewers will of course want to be sure to get the widescreen edition of the film, as Warner is releasing it in both widescreen (original aspect ratio) and "full screen" (pan and scan) versions.

Audio

I wouldn't be able to distinguish Murder by Numbers' Dolby 5.1 track from a lackluster 2.0. There's almost no use of the surround channels at all: in fact, the use of the rear speakers for a gunshot effect toward the end of the film nearly made me jump out of my seat with surprise, as it was the first time I'd heard anything from a direction other than in front of me in the entire movie. Apart from that one isolated use of surround, the soundtrack is flat, center-focused, and dull. Dialogue is consistently slightly muffled, making for an audio experience that's definitely below par.

Extras

The DVD of Murder by Numbers features an audio commentary from director and co-producer Barbet Schroeder (the director of Single White Female and Our Lady of the Assassins) and editor Lee Percy, along with the standard minor features of a trailer and cast/crew filmographies.

Final thoughts

I found Murder by Numbers to be a definitely entertaining detective thriller. The DVD's audio and video quality are not up to the level of quality I'd hope for in a recent release of a recent movie, but it's watchable; all in all, I'd recommend picking up a copy.
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