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June 05, 2007

DVD Journal: "Murder by Numbers"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


I had a good time trying to figure out why "Murder by Numbers," a well-turned psychological thriller from 2002, didn't work.

It occurs to me as I type that that's a strange way to enjoy a movie -- to have a good time trying to figure out why a movie wasn't working. But, given the genre, it also makes sense. Brief aside: For suspense buffs, a big part of the appeal of thrillers, mysteries, and suspense stories is that they have an intellectual, game-playing side, but they're also completely dependent on audience response. It's a nice chemistry, I find: The mind is engaged, but it mustn't be dominant. The intellect is under an obligation to submit to the gut's responses -- and that's a dialogue that can keep you interested even when the outcome is unfortunate.

In this case, my mind was quite happy. The performers (Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Michael Pitt, Ryan Gosling) were excellent -- attractive, full of personality, into their characters, etc. Barbet Schroeder's direction, if not very energized or stylized, was intelligent, sophisticated, and well-paced. Tony Gayton's script -- which takes the Leopold-and-Loeb crime, sets it in a contemporary coastal California town, and pumps up the class-conflict angle -- hits its marks, and introduces a fair number of interesting wrinkles and twists. (I see on IMDB that Henry Bean did some uncredited work on the script too.)

Sandra and Ryan: Is it guilt? Or lust?

The film's strategy is to divulge whodunnit at the outset, and to let the suspense concern the revelations of character as the investigation proceeds. That's a characteristic psychological-suspense move; I wrote about the psych-suspense genre here. What this means is that you don't spend the movie trying to guess a factual solution; you spend it instead wondering about what's going on in the characters' heads and souls, and about how and whether these drives and needs will find expression.

Yet, despite all the good work, my gut was unhappy; the effect of the film was to leave my reptile brain wondering, "What's this offering that I can't find cheaper on TV?" Some element of intoxication, bliss, or even sleaze wasn't there; if you can imagine a "Vertigo" that lacks any compulsiveness, or dreamlike allure, you'd about have it.

But what was this missing element, exactly? I'm sorry to confess that I'm unable to do any better than to say things like, "Gosh, some spark or other was missing," and "I guess this is a case of 'well-done but lacking an indefinable something'."

There's a more-general question I was left with too, which is: Why does Hollywood seem to have lost the knack for creating satisfying adult thrillers? There was an era not so long ago when the business came up with juicy suspense pictures on a regular basis: "Unlawful Entry" (which I blogged about here, and which is buyable for $6.98), "Basic Instinct" (which I blogged about here), "Single White Female" (directed by Barbet Schroeder), "Jagged Edge," "Disclosure," "Eight Million Ways to Die," "Falling Down," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Fatal Attraction," "Deep Cover" (script co-written by Henry Bean, and on sale for $5.49), "A Rage in Harlem" ... The middle-'80s through the early-'90s was a golden era for crime and thriller fans, come to think of it. Great or not-great, these movies were all fun, decadent, and lowdown-but-stylish; they also had some resonance. What has changed?

Perhaps the genre was simply mined dry, of course. My guess, though, is that a more plausible explanation is that the business has grown more corporate, more cautious, and more kiddie-centric. The films I listed above were unapologetically adult, and they hit nerves. Today's adult-thriller-with-one-big-star has become a kind of standard product, an empty exercise pumped-out regularly and denatured of what makes them worth paying attention to.

In fact -- what the hell -- I'll take a big swing here and venture the observation that the general culture has grown prissy. Despite all the obvious vulgarity that surrounds us -- the poptarts, the bad girls, the teen grossout sex comedies, the easy availability of porn -- the mainstream culture has tightened up. (Perhaps it has tightened up in reaction to the general vulgarity.) And adult tastes seem to be on the run. Adults aren't asserting themselves; they've certainly abandoned movie theaters. To the extent that they're making their own entertainment demands, they indulge their pleasures at restaurants or at home.

Would the flamboyant, lewd Joe Eszterhas get anywhere at all if he were starting off today? Would a major studio release a movie ("Single White Female") starring two on-the-rise young starlets that features a scene -- a non-jokey, disturbing, and intense scene -- in which one of the girls disguises herself and traitorously gives the other girl's boyfriend a blowjob? Although that was one memorable scene -- as well as an acting moment that did Jennifer Jason Leigh's career no harm -- my guess is that today's agents and corporate types wouldn't allow it.

Too bad, eh? We may never have had such a big group of attractive, well-trained young actors as we do now. But we've also never had such a lot of anxious handlers getting between us and how our performers might please and excite us. Which leads to my more general theory: Suspense stories -- even classy ones -- thrive on the lowdown and the dirty. Banish the lowdown and the dirty, and ... Well, a thriller without some wickedness in its soul better have an awful lot of something else to sell.

But I'm open to better ideas, god knows. Anyone have any theories about why the thrillers-for-adults genre seems moribund these days? And what have the best recent thrillers been, anyway? Some of the David Fincher pictures? "Training Day"? I liked "8mm 2" -- but that's a bargain-bin special and not a mainstream movie-with-a-star. Of course, given how few new movies I see these days, it could also be that I'm completely wrong about all of this.



UPDATE: Thanks to Steve, and to Vince Keenan, who remind me of two other first-class thrillers: Mike Figgis' exquisitely sophisticated / sleazy, funky / chic "Internal Affairs" from 1990, and the much more recent "Cellular," which I praised here. Both of these excellent movies can be bought for around 10 bucks. Popular culture fans should be making regular visits to Vince Keenan's website.

posted by Michael at June 5, 2007


I agree entirely about "Murder By Numbers". It didn't seem awful when I saw it but here, a couple of years later, I remember virtually nothing about it--a bad sign. The list of movies you approved of, though, prompts me to recommend two I've seen this year that will likely fill the bill for you. "Breach", which was seen by almost nobody when it hit theaters early this year, is due on DVD next week. It's a pretty compelling version of the uncovering and capture of Soviet spy Robert Hanssen, who was caught in the early 90s. Hanssen is played by the terrific Chris Cooper in the best performance of his career.

And don't let the bad reviews drive you away from "Mr. Brooks", that popped into theaters last weekend and pretty much sank like a stone. This is one of those rare cases where the nearly unanimous critics are just plain wrong. Kevin Costner, of all people, makes a convincing serial killer; and William Hurt, having almost as much fun as he did in "A History of Violence", is absolutely wonderful as Costner's murderous alter ego. I suspect this will disappear quickly from theaters and find its audience on DVD. "Mr. Brooks", by the way, earns its R rating, and "Breach" works well within the restraints of a PG-13 without that dumbed down feel that so many PG-13 thrillers have.

Posted by: Michael P on June 5, 2007 3:39 PM

I checked out your reiview of Basic Instinct, and the comments. You say, in response to one commenter, that the dumbing-down of movies may be the result of PC triumphant, but that you think the "squares" may also be responsible. But just think: censorship of explicit sexuality, in the past - let's say in the 1940s and 1950s - didn't make films childish or silly back then. It simply forced directors to be creative in their presentation of sexual matters on screen. Was Vertigo a childish film, or The Best Years of Our Lives, because they didn't show the main characters in bed together?

You may think censorship of this kind, whether voluntary, as today, or involuntary, as with the old Hayes (sp?) code is wrong, and on the whole I agree with you, with some misgivings. But I think it's unfair to blame it for the badness of films now, esp. since it does seem to be purely voluntary. Directors of big-budget films want them to appeal to broad audiences, and explicit sexual material shuts out families, young teenagers, and of course children. So you get the movie-as-cartoon.

Posted by: alias clio on June 5, 2007 5:21 PM

Looking at your list of sleazy thrillers from the late '80s/early '90s, it seems to me that a big problem is that Michael Douglas got too old for these roles. Never one of my favorite actors, but man he was like a one-man sleaze machine!

It's also true that, with the exception of JAGGED EDGE, the *only* sleazy thrillers in your list that were big box office successes starred Douglas. (I guess maybe SINGLE WHITE FEMALE did okay.) I think the boomlet you describe was largely due to him. He's still really the one big male American actor I can think of who wasn't afraid to get naked and do the dirty on screen, well into his 40s. (Except for Brando in TANGO, of course.)

Posted by: Steve on June 5, 2007 5:29 PM

The problem with BREACH -- no sex! FRACTURE had brief sex, but suffered in that regard with Anthony Hopkins as the bad guy.

There's a thriller coming up with Halle Berry and Bruce Willis that looks quite trashy.

Also Michael, you forgot one of my very favorite sleazy thrillers from the period you describe, INTERNAL AFFAIRS.

Posted by: Steve on June 5, 2007 5:33 PM

Excellent post. The adult thriller has been on the wane of late, for all the reasons you describe. Plus one more that's always been true: thrillers are very difficult to pull off. The genre is "execution dependent," as they say in Hollywood. There is reason to be optimistic, however. With the resurgence of the R-rated comedy in the last few years, can the grown-up suspense film be far behind?

My favorite U.S. thrillers of recent years include Collateral, David Mamet's Spartan, and Cellular. I'm serious about the last one. It's a perfectly executed popcorn movie. But the true gems have been coming from overseas. Claude Chabrol continues to make interesting suspense films that also function as analyses of middle-class mores. There's Oldboy and Memories of Murder from Korea, The Memory of a Killer from Belgium.

And I'll second Michael P's recommendation of Mr. Brooks. It's a sly, deeply twisted piece of work that I enjoyed immensely.

Posted by: Vince on June 5, 2007 5:53 PM

I've seen too few recent adult thrillers to be any kind of judge here, but I have to second alias clio's point. Is there anything more adult, more suspenseful, than, say, Notorious? It's got the requisite wickedness in its soul without the explicit sex, and it manages -- maybe partly for that reason -- to be both more romantic and more sexually charged than anything I've seen in the last twenty years.

I dunno . . . maybe it's just a Cary Grant thing.

Posted by: Kate Marie on June 5, 2007 6:42 PM

The performers (Sandra Bullock [...]

Umm...say no more?

Posted by: Scott on June 5, 2007 6:48 PM

Michael P -- Thanks for the tips. I've certainly been intrigued by the idea of Costner playing a bad guy.

Clio, Kate Marie -- I'm not sure how I was unclear, but I certainly agree that 1) Cary Grant and "Notorious" are two of the pinnacles of 20th century culture, and 2) that a little repression is often good for adult entertainment. (The run of sleazy thrillers that I praise in this posting, for instance, got started in the Reagan years.) What's baffling these days is the way the picture has changed. We have a Republican prez, yet there has been on flourishing of sexy adult entertainment. We have a wide-open, completely uninhibited webworld, yet in much of the country K-mart and soccer moms rule. For all the salaciousness that's so EZ to access these days, actual adult pleasure (as in mainstream-entertainment-pleasure) has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle. Fascinatin', no?

Steve -- Funny to realize that I miss the Michael Douglas years, but I have to admit I do. And thanks for the nudge about "Internal Affairs," one my fave-est sleazy thrillers. I'd tell you a bit about what happens to your memory and recall once you hit 50, but I've forgotten what it was ...

Vince - I'm completely with you on "Cellular"! (another thriller my memory overlooked). I even blogged about it here. Let's hope adult thrillers (or adult movies of any kind) are going to show up again soon. What's your hunch? I worry sometimes that American adults have gotten into a new groove where they're happier watching "Rome" and "Deadwood" on TV at home than worrying about movies at all.

Scott -- But she's a Texas gal! Where's your loyalty?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 5, 2007 10:39 PM

Updating Leopold & Loeb might bring to mind two Simpsons' villians with hilariously louche speech patterns: Nelson Muntz (the schoolyard bully) & Sideshow Bob.

Posted by: playrink on June 6, 2007 1:12 AM

I liked Insomnia, from a couple of years ago, with Al Pacino & Hillary Swank. Also, Dirty Pretty Things. Collateral from a few years back with Tom Cruise was fairly good. Confidence was pretty good - and lordy, was it high on the sleaze scale. (I wish more people would cast Ed Burns, who is my nomination for this generation's grown up, masculine male.)

OTOH, I saw Single White Female when it was in the theaters years ago and the audience I was with, including me, laughed. I thought Cellular was okay, but thin.

I'm in complete agreement with your observation/complaint that movies with adult appeal are growing more and more scarce. I attribute it as much to the financing/numbers mindset though, as anything. Young adolescent males are, as I understand it, as the most reliable demographic who will come out the first week to see a movie. So, we get a lot of movies which are basically a string of explosions.

Posted by: Judith on June 6, 2007 7:58 AM

Sequels are what's driving the movie industry today. A movie that easily lends itself to sequelization is going to be favored over one that does not. And adult crime thrillers, by their very nature, do not generally meet this standard.

Posted by: Peter on June 6, 2007 10:04 AM

One False Move is one of my favorite sleazy thrillers.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 6, 2007 10:51 AM

I'm not required to be loyal to carpetbaggers.

Posted by: Scott on June 6, 2007 11:25 PM

Michael, in terms of constraints on the culture...the cultural action has really moved to TV. If you're not checking out The Sopranos (especially the older seasons), the Wire, Entourage, etc. you're not really qualified to opine on contemporary film standards. Nothing personal, I'm just saying that those series are far edgier than anything you are citing in the movies, and they are massively popular.

Posted by: mq on June 7, 2007 6:55 PM

Playrink -- You're right. There's a lot in contemporary movies that makes one think of The Simpsons.

Judith -- Thanks for the recs. As for "SWF" ... Audiences often will laugh at sexy thrillers, especially when they get intense. I don't think that's a judgment on their quality -- or at least not always. Sometimes it's just a sign they're effective. The audience I saw "Basic Instinct" with was very uneasy and tsky, for instance.

Peter -- That's a really good point. I wonder if somewhere some screenwriter is doing his best to create a sequel-able adult thriller. The black widow seems to die, but ... No! She's back for more!

Patriarch -- Another good one. I loved "Devil in a Blue Dress" even more myself, but should really go back and give "One False Move" another look.

Scott -- Texas ethics are beyond me.

MQ -- I agree! From the post itself: "To the extent that [adults] are making their own entertainment demands, they indulge their pleasures at restaurants or at home." That's meant to acknowledge TV and cable. But maybe I should have been more explicit. In any case, it means something when adults have retreated for their pleasures from public life into their private caves, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 7, 2007 7:12 PM

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