By the Numbers

Murder by Numbers does the Nietzschean nihilist killer thing; Frailty likes its ax murderers righteous; The Cat’s Meow has no momentum.

A whole lot of serial killers this week in Murder by Numbers (Warner Bros.) and Frailty (Lions Gate). One faction kills as an assertion of freedom in the absence of God, the other because God has allegedly provided them with a list of demons in human form. God or no God, then, it seems as if there’s always a good reason to strangle or dismember someone. I believe that my own God isn’t nuts about serial-killer movies that take his name in vain—but hey, I’m not going to kill anyone over it. Maybe just smite a movie or two.

The Sandra Bullock vehicle Murders by Numbers gets off on its flatter foot by having a character, early on, deliver a paper on Nietzsche to a high-school class. “Freedom is crime because it thinks first of itself and not of the group,” explains the girlish-looking Justin (Michael Pitt), while his rich, insolently macho buddy (Ryan Gosling) looks on. His teacher suggests that the logical extension of that—crime equals freedom—is indefensible, and I doubt I’m spoiling the suspense by revealing that two hours later the movie confirms that killing someone is not, indeed, a recipe for an unfetterred psyche. The credo of these Leopold and Loeb types—”One cannot live fully without embracing suicide and crime”—doesn’t have a lot of traction outside certain Oliver Stone pictures.

It’s not the worst premise for a thriller, though. The Nietzschean nihilist killer thing is dumb and artificial, but it leaves room for a good chess match between the wily criminals—who pore over crime-scene and forensics manuals, the better to anticipate the cops’ every move—and the homicide detective (Bullock) who struggles to figure out why (in a line that shows up in all the previews) “the profile doesn’t fit the profile.”

The problem is that Murder by Numbers is a post-Columbine, socially concerned serial-killer movie: It has such a guilty conscience about its own subject that the two teen-agers are never allowed a second of demonic mastery, and the detective story itself is less satisfying than the average episode of Columbo. The screenplay is full of thumping thesis lines suggesting the harm done by absent parents, and Pitt’s Justin is too much of a moist and needy little pipsqueak to make a convincing Nietzsche spokesman. The real story seems to be his sociopathic buddy’s crypto-homosexual fixation on him.

That’s often the case in Barbet Schroeder’s pictures, which tend on the top flight to be earnest and humanistic problem dramas and, a few flights down, redolent of sleaze. I prefer the kinky, voyeuristic side of the director—it feels more authentic.

Schroeder can have a purring intimacy with his stars, and Murder by Numbers turns out to be a great showcase for Sandra Bullock as a badly damaged, alcoholic, and sexually aggressive homicide detective. Her vulnerability emerges by indirection—by how she embraces the girl-with-a-penis label that the men (some of them former lovers) pin on her, by how she’s too fast with a sexual role-reversal quip to be entirely comfortable with her own reckless acting-out. Schroeder swathes her in deep violet to underline her sadness and to signal the buried trauma of her early life. But not even the actress’ soulfulness can save the generic climax, in which she tussles with the badder bad guy on a collapsing terrace above a crashing surf. As a colleague muttered, “Murder by numbersis right.”

You have to give credit to Frailty for jiggering up the formula a bit, so that what starts as an ominously low-key study of a boy coming of age with a mad father escalates into a combination of The TexasChainsaw Massacre and Breaking the Waves—Grand Guignol religiosity. On the proverbial dark and stormy night, a man named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) shows up at the Dallas office of the FBI agent (Powers Boothe) in charge of a serial-killer hunt to announce that his brother—who has just committed suicide—is their man. He goes on to recount the story of his loving dad (Bill Paxton), an auto-mechanic who—in a flashback—has a divine revelation, after which he regards himself as God’s executioner. There are people among us, says Dad, who are not people at all but demons, and so they can’t be murdered, only “destroyed.”

The older son, Fenton (played as a kid by Matthew O’Leary), is appalled as his father kidnaps sundry bound men and women, chops them to pieces, and buries them in the town’s rose garden. But there’s something about the dad’s shining-eyed certainty—and the fact that it’s his dad, for crying out loud, the source of his moral instruction—that keeps Fenton from going straight to the police. Another factor is that his young brother, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), is convinced that his dad is speaking the truth—and that he can hear the angel’s voice, too.

Is the movie, Paxton’s directorial debut (from a script by Brent Hanley), a “meditation on faith of several different kinds,” as Stephen Holden argues in a wildly favorable New York Times review? Or is it a harrowing but essentially facetious horror-movie joke? I think it’s both—but spelling out why would spoil too many surprises. Holden thinks that Frailty portrays children as “ideological captives” of their parents’ fundamentalist faith in a way “worth dwelling on” in these violent times. But does he realize that (STOP reading here if you haven’t seen the film) the gotcha! ending says that divine revelation is a pretty solid rationale for cutting people up? These ax-murderers are righteous, dude.

Based on a play by Steven Peros, The Cat’s Meow (Lions Gate) is a not-so-idle speculation about the mysterious death of onetime silent-movie mogul Thomas Ince aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst—a story that not even Orson Welles dared to tell. Old movie buff that he is, director Peter Bogdanovich gathers together these famous figures—Hearst (Edward Herrmann), his child near-bride Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and Ince (Cary Elwes)—and sets them afloat amid lovely sets and costumes and ‘20s orchestral standards like “Alice Blue Gown.” It’s all very smoothly, lovingly detailed—the bare-breasted flappers, the pingpong matches with servants scrambling after balls, Hearst’s titanic megalomania, Chaplin’s bald obsession with sleeping with Davies, Ince’s desperation at the thought of losing a studio. But even after a senseless death the movie isn’t very compelling. I didn’t understand why until the final bit of narration by Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) about everyone dancing away, dancing desperately, because “if we stopped we’d have nothing.” Bogdanovich has been so smooth and loving in his directorial attentions that he has forgotten to give the tragical farce proceedings any terrible momentum.

He nurtures a few great performances, though. It’s great to see Lumley, after her years of camping on Absolutely Fabulous, be elegantly, exquisitely still. Elwes is convincingly torn between self-interest and an inability to be a total sleazy thug. Herrmann’s loss of control at the prospect of losing his mistress is overplayed, but his recovery and subsequent ruthless assurance is the best acting he has ever done. Best of all is Jennifer Tilly, who’s often underrated because she sometimes comes off as an exhibitionistic weirdo. Well, she’s a first-class comic actress, too, with a natural slapstick presence. As the vulgar and effusive Parsons, she does pratfalls that are psychologically authentic: She trips because she’s so incorrigibly forward.