In 1924 there was a murder was so shocking that it was called the crime of the century. What was chilling was the motive — not money or passion but a cool arrogance that led two wealthy young men to try to prove their superiority by showing that they could get away with murder.
The greatest criminal defense lawyer in American history was called in to defend the two brilliant young students accused of the crime. They had confessed to the crime, so all that Clarence Darrow could do was invent a legal argument that would keep his clients alive. His use of psychiatric testimony and his moving closing argument allowed Leopold and Loeb to escape the death penalty and live out their lives in prison.
That case is the inspiration for this story of two high school kids and the detective trying to solve a murder case. Sandra Bullock plays Cassie, a detective whose tough manner with her colleagues hides her sensitivity. When she refers to the murder victim by her first name, her chief reminds her that she is supposed to be identifying with the perpetrator, not the person he killed. It is the criminal’s profile she needs to study.
Cassie has a new partner, Sam (Ben Chaplin). Cassie always has a new partner because no one will stay with her long enough to work on a second case. At first, it seems as though clever police work has led Sam to the killer. And when Cassie insists that the solution is at the same time too neat (the suspect is dead) and too messy (despite the convenient forensic matches of hairs and fibers, there are still unanswered questions), no one wants to listen.
There is something about the two high school kids — rich, popular Rick (Ryan Gosling) and introverted, scholarly Justin (Michael Pitt) — that bothers her.
It is easy to see why Bullock, who also produced, wanted to make this movie. She gets to play a grittier (and more wounded) character than her usual girl-next-door parts, and she has a couple of showy scenes, but the movie feels predictable, even manufactured, a sort of movie by numbers.
Parents should know that the movie has some graphic violence including murders and domestic abuse. Characters use very strong language, drink, use drugs, and smoke. A character has an exploitive sexual encounter that is secretly videotaped. Cassie has sex with Sam but will not allow him to get close to her. There is a homosexual connection between Justin and Rick. The movie’s tension and creepiness may upset some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about the role parental neglect might have played in creating a need in Rick and Justin to do something angry and destructive and the way that two people can spur each other on to do things that neither of them could have imagined alone. Why was becoming a detective a good or bad way for Cassie to respond to her past? Did the detectives lie to the suspects? Is that fair? Families may also want to talk about the famous “prisoner’s dilemma”, which we see here as the police question the two boys in different rooms so that each one feels pressure to confess first.
Families who enjoy this movie might like to read Clarence Darrow’s famous closing argument at the Leopold and Loeb trial or take a look at this history of the case. Other movies based on Leopold and Loeb include Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Compulsion, with Orson Welles in the Darrow role.