The Leopold and Loeb story gets a modernistic makeover in “Murder by Numbers,” an engrossing but psychologically shallow tale of a female cop on the tail of two arrogant teenage killers. Low-key by contempo thriller standards, this stylish foray into Hitchcock territory by eclectic director Barbet Schroeder is marked by strong performances from its leading players, not the least of them from Sandra Bullock as a maverick investigator with her own set of issues. Those misled into expecting “Seven”-ish sensationalism by the title and intriguing campaign will be disappointed, and B.O. prospects look midrange.
Opening scene of the disturbingly acute Justin (Michael Pitt) delivering a Nietzschean-flavored talk on the nature of good and evil, and freedom and submission, to his high school class instantly raises hopes that a genre picture with an unusually refined sensibility may be in store. And the way that Justin and his rich pretty boy friend Richard (Ryan Gosling) sit around conspiring while drinking absinthe leaves little doubt that they are the culprits behind a grisly strangulation of a young woman now being assessed by homicide detective Cassie Mayweather (Bullock) and her green new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin).
Like their famous youthful predecessors from 1920s Chicago, whose exploits inspired Hitchcock’s “Rope,” “Compulsion” and the indie “Swoon,” among other dramas, Justin and Richard consider themselves so smart and superior as to be beyond apprehension; killing for them is a game that will simply prove their cleverness. Justin is the brainy philosophical one who has no trouble putting himself on a plane above everyone else, while Richard doesn’t even have to think to know that he’s got advantages every other young man envies — looks, money, instant appeal to girls and a connected father who can bail him out of any jam.
But as strong and charismatic as Pitt and Gosling are playing these upper-class California devils, they are let down by the screenplay by Tony Gayton (“The Salton Sea”), which doesn’t explore the nature of their dubious collaboration deeply or convincingly. The obvious latent homoerotic nature of the relationship is superficially present, but not in a way that is at all meaningful or interesting. While confident mentally, the mop-haired, somewhat awkward Justin is insecure with girls, even when ultra-cute fellow student Lisa (Agnes Bruckner, fine here as in the Sundance hit “Blue Car”) opens the door wide for him.
By contrast, Richard seems almost bored by how easy it is for him to score, but aside from the kicks involved it’s difficult to see how he connects with Justin, who of course is envious of his partner’s savoir-faire. Script sorely lacks some glue — intellectual, emotional, political — that would bond the boys in their mutual fascination and deadly pursuits, an even partial male equivalent of what Peter Jackson supplied so successfully in “Heavenly Creatures.”
Fortunately, there is some welcome psychological layering on the other side of the narrative. While attractive and stylish, Cassie is a major misfit and loner. Professionally confident and not afraid to tell people what she thinks of them, she behaves a lot like a guy: She likes solitary drinking on her houseboat, keeps whatever she’s feeling thoroughly under wraps and is not into emotional commitments, initiating sex when, where and with whom she wants it.
She also has a few secrets in her past, and they’re deep, painful ones that have decisively influenced her choice of profession and how she lives. The gradual revelation of these secrets is interesting enough, but the great pleasure of the character, and of Bullock’s shrewdly understated performance, is that Cassie is not tortured, obsessed or undone by her past traumas; she has dealt with them, has long since learned how to negotiate around their detritus and has transformed the negatives into strengths, at least in portions of her life. To be sure, she is neurotically controlling, willing to let men get into her body but not under her skin, but the trait is of a piece with her adamantly independent spirit and tough-minded outlook on life.
It’s not surprising, then, that Cassie early on makes a quick conquest of the malleable Sam, no matter how questionable the hookup is from a professional p.o.v.; he’s like a deer caught in the headlights and will clearly never be able to stand up to her. Sam is even more of a pushover than was Chaplin’s milquetoasty clerk opposite Nicole Kidman in “Birthday Girl,” which the actor might bear in mind when considering future roles.
In that the killers’ m.o. involves the careful planting of clues such as threads and hairs to lead the cops to a different perpetrator, there are conventional, audience-pleasing satisfactions to be had from following Cassie’s gradual progress in cracking the case and from her intermittent confrontations with the boys even before she has the goods on them. Also pleasing is the filmmakers’ refusal to follow the annoying example of so many other similar stories by setting up the most sympathetic and vulnerable secondary character — in this case, Lisa — as the obvious next victim. But there are no outright gasps or thrills, and the tension level never rises very high.
Handsomely lensed by Luciano Tovoli, pic uses San Luis Obispo locations to excellent advantage in evoking an affluent world of privilege that presumably helps free the teens of moral burdens. A dilapidated house on an oceanside bluff in which the boys sometimes meet is rather overwrought and phony looking, but no more so than the key settings in numerous Hitchcock films. Subtle and unusual score by Clint Mansell, formerly of the band Pop Will Eat Itself, is a real plus.