An intelligent loner (Justin) and a bored rich kid (Richard) got lost somewhere along the path to manhood. And the result is that an innocent girl lies dead, wrapped in plastic, dumped into a ravine. "One cannot live fully without embracing suicide and crime," the two boys have come to believe. "Crime isn’t just an idea. It’s an act. Only free men can do it." Not a crime of passion or for profit. But rather "the perfect crime." Random. Emotionless. Deadly.
It’s homicide detective Cassie Mayweather’s job to work her way through the smokescreens and distractions created by the teenage boys and bring them to justice. It won’t be easy. The murder was choreographed down to the cloth fibers planted on the corpse. They thought of everything—except their own souls. So while Cassie fights her own demons from the past, Richard and Justin search for freedom.
positive elements: The boys ultimately discover that freedom can never be derived from destruction and sin. The words that they were so fond of repeating prove to be empty rhetoric, devoid of even a morsel of truth. Cassie is driven to exact justice, and she pursues the killers with diligence and determination. She’s convinced that "you get one life and whatever you do and whatever is done to you, you’ve got to face it. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen." That goes for the boys and for herself.
sexual content: Cassie is messed up. She has virtually no relationship skills and that shows in her approach to sex. Late in the film you discover why she struggles so much, but most of the "sexual content" damage is already done. She seduces her partner early on and compels him to have sex with her. As soon as they’re done, she kicks him out of bed and tells him to go home. She’s perfectly clear with him that the sex is for fun, not for love and that she has no interest in sleeping together in the same bed for the rest of the night. Nudity isn’t included in the scene, but the implications are direct. Days later, she caresses his crotch with her toe, trying to lure him back into bed.
Richard videotapes a sexual encounter he has with a girl at school, then shows it to Justin. But there’s a back story to the incident that actually carries more weight than such a simple explanation would imply. While never overt, subtle actions and conversations between Richard and Justin hint at homosexual attraction. Richard cradles Justin’s head in his hands more than once, and seems to be jealous when Justin expresses interest in "the girl." So Richard beds her to prove to Justin that she’s "not good enough" for him. The implication being that Richard is. The girl in question has nude paintings of herself hung up in her room. Also, crude comments about sex are thrown around at school. And Cassie makes off-color jokes about why she is known as "the hyena."
violent content: The movie opens with Richard and Justin facing each other, each holding a gun to his own head. A shot rings out as the cameras cut away. That scene recurs at the end of the film. In other scenes, Richard threatens Justin with a gun (it turns out to be a cigarette lighter). And Justin returns the favor (his gun is real). Cassie sifts through graphic crime evidence, which includes a dead body and explicit photos of a murder. Justin cuts off the dead girl’s finger. Richard puts a gun to a man’s head and pulls the trigger (sound effects communicate his death). Justin punches Richard in the face. Cassie and Richard scuffle in a parking lot, but that fight is merely a prelude to the conclusion in which the two are involved in a lengthy gun battle. When their bullets are gone, they grapple to the death while perilously perched high above an ocean cliff. Not exactly a "standard" altercation, Richard kisses Cassie and licks her face while trying to kill her. Throughout the movie, flashback images clue in viewers to the details of the boys’ deadly deed: a hammer blow to the girl’s head; her lying bound and gagged on a bed; her being strangled.
crude or profane language: About 10 f-words and five s-words. Several of the f-words are used in a sexually explicit manner. Other profanities and crudities include both sexual slang and misuses of the Lord’s name.
drug and alcohol content: Cassie drinks. Often. At home, she always has alcohol close at hand. Richard smokes cigarettes and a joint, which he bought from the school janitor. Justin concocts an intoxicating drink called absinthe. A police officer jokes about smoking the marijuana buds they find at a crime scene.
conclusion: The story was conceived by producer Richard Crystal who was intrigued by a real-life 1924 crime. "As the project developed, the layers of the story began to build," says Crystal. "It becomes a real cat and mouse game between Cassie and the young men. It’s like watching a chess match." A chess match with death as its prize. After the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, movies that deal with teenage killers have been justifiably put under a microscope. Murder by Numbers should be no exception. Will a troubled teen watch it and pattern his or her own deadly plot after it? Will it further desensitize others to matters of life an death? Sandra Bullock is confident her film will have the opposite effect. "Silence is deadly," she says. "If you glorify violence, it’s even worse. So I say, ‘Show it, make it as uncomfortable as possible and address the issues.’" I’m not so sure it’s that simple.
Numbers does make murder an uncomfortable proposition. And it doesn’t celebrate the boys’ actions. But it does show what they did in sometimes excruciating detail. Those graphic images alone can be enough to trigger dangerous responses from already on-the-edge teens. Parents also need to be mindful that just because a movie or TV show "exposes" a crime or a health risk or some anti-social behavior for what it is, that doesn’t mean teens won’t embrace it all the more because of those negative messages. Actress Christina Ricci (Sleepy Hollow, Bless the Child) recently revealed that her battle with eating disorders was influenced heavily by watching TV specials designed to steer people away from anorexia and bulimia. "I did get all my tips from a Tracey Gold Lifetime movie on anorexia. It taught me what to do," she said. "There was also one on HBO starring Calista Flockhart when she was really young. She was bulimic and anorexic. She'd vomit into Tupperware containers and keep them in her closet. It was so crazy to me that for some reason it was appealing." Likewise, cautionary tales—especially those that choose to render their subject matter vividly—can actually encourage those already contemplating the behavior.
So where does that leave us in regard to Murder by Numbers? In a tight spot. The film does render its subjects vividly (despite director Barbet Schroeder’s insistence that he kept the violence to an "absolute bare minimum for what the story is"). There is kidnapping. Torture. A suicide pact. And murder. The boys are intelligent. The conclusion is violent. As Cassie says, some people "like getting caught." So just making the point that the crime is horrible may not be enough. Some viewers may find the enumeration of it enticing—not deterring.