Dir: Barbet Schroeder. US. 2002. 120mins.

Murder By Numbers is an ambitious attempt to make a multi-layered murder investigation film, loosely retelling the chilling Leopold and Loeb case which has intrigued everyone from Alfred Hitchcock in Rope to Tom Kalin in Swoon. And with Barbet Schroeder behind the camera, the film is instantly more fascinating and character-based than your average studio genre movie. But absorbed as he clearly is by the situation, Schroeder forgets to include the elements which make a thriller thrilling. He fails to generate the scares - so prevalent in his Single White Female - while at the same time revealing whodunit in the opening scene, thus depriving us of any surprises in the plot. And unlike his breakthrough US picture Reversal Of Fortune, the characters are explored in a haphazard and superficial fashion, despite a trio of confident performances by Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt.

Bullock's name, combined with an effective marketing campaign by Warner Bros stressing its sinister aspects, gave the film an okay $9.5m opening weekend gross from 2,663 sites in North America. It should also have a healthy international box office life, although the film faces fierce competition from other higher-concept female-driven thrillers such as Panic Room, High Crimes and Enough. Not to mention the competition from Bullock herself, who will be back on screens in a month or so in The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Clearly Murder By Numbers won't match the $200m -plus gross achieved by Bullock's last producing effort with Castle Rock Entertainment, Miss Congeniality, but it is polished and intelligent enough to become a valuable asset in the company's library. The thematic similarities to Rope are not the only nod to Hitchcock. Much of the pivotal action takes place in an abandoned house on a California clifftop, shot in richly coloured twilight by Luciano Tovoli as if it were a scene from Vertigo, while the small affluent town setting is reminiscent of everything from Shadow Of A Doubt to The Birds.

The film opens on the clifftop, where two high school friends - the smart, withdrawn Justin (Michael Pitt) and the brash, good-looking rich kid Richard (Gosling) - discuss crime, specifically murder, as the ultimate form of power and good. That they are clearly the perpetrators of the killing of a young woman found at a river's edge a few scenes later is left in no doubt. Investigating the murder are Cassie Mayweather (Bullock), a hard-nosed homicide detective with the nickname of "hyena", and her new partner, good-natured rookie Sam Kennedy (Chaplin). Cassie is an unpopular figure on the local force whose loner tendencies have alienated her from her colleagues. A heavy drinker unable to connect emotionally with men, she is nevertheless a brilliant detective and before long has connected boot-prints found at the scene with Richard, to who she takes an instant instinctive dislike.

But Justin and Richard, to whose perspective the script keeps switching, have planned such a ruse. Their intention a la Leopold and Loeb was to commit the perfect murder with no forensic connections to themselves and an obvious culprit in the school janitor and dope-peddlar Chris Penn. Indeed, the hapless Chaplin falls for their scheme and follows their clues to Penn, who commits suicide (in fact he is murdered by Gosling) before he is tracked down.

Cassie, however, is convinced that the two boys are responsible for the killing and, against the will of her superiors, pursues her investigation, linking a pile of vomit found at the scene of the crime to Justin, and linking Justin to Richard. She and Sam almost force confessions out of them, but are prevented at the last minute by Richard's influential father and his lawyers. Finally, the two boys flee to the cliff-top house with Bullock in pursuit.

The problem with the film is one of focus. While the two young men are often electrifying together, the script does not go deeply into their relationship. Hints at jealousy between the two and homosexual attraction are introduced but never taken further, while the intellectual bonds they forge are just touched upon.

Likewise, Bullock's character - who, the audience learn, has a troubled past with a golden boy much like Richard - is more an enigmatic sketch than a fully-written creation, although Bullock, who becomes more accomplished with each role, does a fine job with the uncharacteristically unlikeable part. Not so poor Chaplin, who is given so little to work with that he comes across as nothing more than a mild buffoon.

The murder itself is shown in flashback in the film's final stages and is as ugly and disturbing as anticipated. Schroeder wrings some heartstopping moments out of the finale, although the highly Hitchcockian (literal) cliffhanging scenes only serve to remind you of the master himself.

Prod cos: Castle Rock Entertainment, Shroeder/Hoffman Productions
W'wide dist: Warner Bros
Schroeder, Susan Hoffman, Richard Crystal
Exec prods: Sandra Bullock, Jeffrey Stott
Scr: Tony Gayton
Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli
Prod des: Stuart Wurtzel
Ed: Lee Percy
Mus: Clint Mansell
Main cast: Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Agnes Bruckner, Chris Penn, RD Call