Eventually, though, it shines an interesting light on how the existence of the death penalty helps ruthless cops bring bad guys to justice.
An anorexic-looking Sandra Bullock ("Miss Congeniality") stars as a hard-bitten homicide detective. At first, the casting of the normally adorable Bullock (who was rightly voted "Most Likely To Brighten Up Your Day" in high school) as a callous, embittered cop seems bizarre. Eventually, though, we learn that she's such a tough cookie only because she was brutally assaulted as a teen, and that if she would simply learn to face her fear of her abuser, she could get back in touch with her inner cutie-pie.
That's a subplot, however. In fact, the two little-known actors playing the murderers get as much screen time as the star. The film is structured like an old "Columbo" episode, with Bullock in the Peter Falk role, tracking down the smug 18-year-olds whom the audience already knows are the killers.
The title should have been "Murder by Nietzsche," as our two high school Supermen spout such philosophical nuggets as "Freedom is crime" while sipping absinthe and gloating over their perfect plot: the killing of an arbitrarily chosen woman.
Personally, I hate movies that encourage you to identify with murderers. I guess I'm prejudiced, but I just don't like murderers. Apparently, that's a minority taste, as "Silence of the Lambs" showed. Even so, the stolid direction by Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune") kept this from equaling the box office of one of Hannibal Lecter's gore-fests. It made $32 million domestically on a $50 budget.
The bad guys are a Columbine Era updating of the Nietzsche-loving 1924 thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, who were also fictionalized in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope."
Ryan Gosling plays the Loeb character as an arrogant, amoral alpha male, incongruously strutting around his genteel Morro Bay, Calif., high school in an Atlantic City wise guy's red satin shirt.
With his long, feminine hair and bee-stung lips, Michael Pitt is particularly creepy as the smitten Leopoldesque figure -- the gayer and smarter of the two. (The real Leopold reportedly registered a 200+ IQ, compared to Loeb's mere 160.)
Leopold's and Loeb's parents hired Clarence Darrow, the most storied defense lawyer of the 20th century, to bamboozle the judge into not hanging their darlings. Shamelessly, but successfully, Darrow argued that these rich rats -- who had committed the most gratuitous murder in history to prove they were superior enough to get away with it -- were helpless victims.
"What had this boy (Loeb) to do with it?" Darrow asked. "He was not his own father; he was not his own mother ... All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay."
Darrow's nihilistic assault on the concepts of personal responsibility and justice itself was long celebrated as the ultimate condemnation of the death penalty. Times have changed, though. The last half decade's plague of minor league Leopolds and Loebs randomly shooting their high school classmates has sapped our sympathy for teen thrill kill cultists. Thus, "Murder by Numbers" makes only cursory efforts to drum up sympathy for Pitt's Loeb character.
Most memorably, "Murder by Numbers" demonstrates how valuable the death penalty can be to the police. Lacking enough evidence to arrest the pair, Bullock and her long-suffering partner (Ben Chaplin of "Birthday Girl") realize their only hope is a confession. They place Gosling and Pitt into separate rooms and tell each that whoever first implicates the other as the one who actually stabbed the woman will live, while the one who stays silent will die in the gas chamber.
This is a classic rendition of the "Prisoner's Dilemma," which fascinates the kind of game theorists we met in "A Beautiful Mind." Implicit in the Prisoner's Dilemma, however, is that if the two suspects stay loyal to each other, they will both walk. Because the movie hasn't yet told us who had held the murder weapon, this makes for the dramatic high point of the film.
The prisoner's dilemma can also work without the death penalty, but only if the accomplice's sentence is much milder than life in prison. It's the large gap between the two punishments that gives Gosling and Pitt an incentive to squeal on each other.
The Prisoner's Dilemma, unfortunately, can encourage the actual murderer to railroad his not-quite-as-guilty accomplice onto Death Row. Applied to the vermin in "Murder by Numbers," however, that seems like a minor defect compared to both going free.
Rated R for violence, language, a sex scene, and brief drug use.