Suspense thrillers don't work when they're stupid. That's just common sense! Ask 'The Bone Collector' if you don't believe me. If the conclusions drawn by the characters don't fit the scenes, then the whole film can seem ridiculous. It also isn't all that suspenseful if any Tom, Dick, or Harry can just look at the first piece of the puzzle, deduce exactly who did what and when, and leave the audience stuck watching for another hour plus. Guessing at plots is so much more fun when you're waiting to see if you're right or wrong.
As for 'The Oxford Murders,' which opens in US theaters on August 6th, it doesn't fail due to dumbness, it fails because it attempts to conceals its characters' unrealistic behavior with intellectualism. Well, OK, simply put, it tries so hard to seem smart that it just seems dumb.
Meeting and working with Professor Seldom (John Hurt) is Martin's main goal in his time at Oxford University, though no amount of mathematical logic can help Martin (Elijah Wood) understand the brash nature of his idol. The two believe that numbers rule reality (though not in a 'The Number 23' manner), and that everything has an obvious solution...or two...or three. A string of murders seems to play the two against each other, as the police try to utilize both minds to find the reasons behind the slayings, and the battle of egos will pit both men against each other in a game where real lives, not just grades, are at stake.
'The Oxford Murders' challenges us, "can we know the truth?," but prohibits our ability to do so by throwing in meandering subplots, abandoning characters, creating stilted, unbelievable leads, and mixing up chemistry so unbelievable that it cripples the film and removes any sense of tension or intrigue. In fact, the entire film feels like it was edited down from a three hour version, and various elements that had the cruxes of their inclusions removed still remain, leaving behind a bit of a jumbled mess. It really doesn't help that the film still feels as if it's three hours, even at its less-than-two hour run time.
Female characters, well, they don't get all that much respect. There's the matriarch, Mrs. Eagleton (Anna Massey), an old friend of Seldom, and the owner of the home Martin is staying in, who doesn't seem too long for this world, if you catch my drift. Beth (Julie Cox), her ambitious daughter, takes care of her every need, and doesn't seem to get much of a life of her own. Lorna (Leonor Watling), a nurse at the on-campus hospital, seems attracted to intelligence, and seems intertwined with the pasts and presents of both Seldom and Martin. Beautiful, yet needy, she takes a backseat to Martin's aspirations, feeling snubbed, in attention and love, as her lover focuses on his goals.
It's almost funny, really, that 'The Oxford Murders' wants to ramble on and on about logic and patterns, yet doesn't act logical whatsoever, only following established patterns of films set before it, like a mixture of 'Sleuth' and the two Dan Brown/Tom Hanks atrocities, with a mixture of the concurrently released 'Pathology,' just for kicks. Sure, the novel (by Guillermo Martinez) has been around since 2003, but in tone, the film offers nothing we haven't seen before, on more than a few occasions actually.
Dialogue is painfully unrealistic, and non-human, even for such devoted, single-minded characters as Martin and Seldom. Not even Hurt's honey dipped voice, perfect for such a aerial pontificator, can save the spoken word, which seems written with a thesaurus within arm's reach. Acting can be less than stellar, with Wood seeming much like his namesake, and the female leads flailing their arms in the worst of ways. Camera work can be distracting, particularly with the ridiculously pretentious tracking shot which comes completely out of left field, as if to be artistic, regardless of fit. Throw in shots of those suffering from Downs Syndrome (used far too often, to the point that it becomes almost exploitative), random out-of-character actions, and an obvious twist of an ending, and what's left is an exercise in excess, trying so hard to be smart that it proves to be everything but. 'The Oxford Murders' isn't the worst film I've seen in recent weeks, not by a long shot, but it could have been much, much better. It's almost no wonder that it has taken over two and a half years for it to hit stateside, and debuted on online gaming channels for download before standard theaters.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'The Oxford Murders' hasn't even been released in theaters domestically as of the publication of this review, yet it is already out on Blu-ray in Germany. The disc has no pre-menu trailers, and is a Region A/B/C (free) BD25, housed in a standard keepcase. The cover art is reversible, for those not all that into the giant ratings label found on most German titles. Both the disc and the cover art call this film 'Oxford Murders,' with no "The" attached. The menu screen is in German, but it's incredibly easy and simple to navigate.
With a 2.40:1, 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode, Koch Media brings 'The Oxford Murders' to Blu-ray, in Germany (exclusively, to my knowledge, unless another European country got a similar release). It's not a real stunner, and has its share of problems, but this one is still visually enjoyable.
From the opening seconds of the release, I was already worried sick, due to how ridiculously bright the black bars atop and beneath the picture were, but they're only this way for the opening company credits, and the later title sequence. Colors are fairly bold, though the entire film is a bit too moody for my tastes, with a few sepia toned shots (though Wood's icy blue eyes still pierce through, regardless of outside influences), and more than a few moments where lighting absolutely ruined any natural skin tones. Noise is a slight problem, but it's not all that prevalent, not enough to truly distract. Detail levels are quite stunning, honestly, close up and afar, particularly in the varied costuming throughout the film. There are no signs of either ringing or DNR, and pans don't create any shimmering or aliasing problems. That said, the picture can appear flat at random, crush is fairly apparent, a few sequences appear as if they were affected by a wobbling, and there's a real ugly spot at the 31.23 mark, as an orchestral player gets up from his chair to cough. At first, I thought the picture had a tiny speed up, as his movement didn't feel natural, but with a quick rewind, I noticed for a few frames that the entire picture goes all blocky, one massive artifact, with taller than they are wide rectangles, like a photoshop filter, filling the screen.
'The Oxford Murders' has dual DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes, in German (the disc default) and English. German subtitles are optional on either track, and are thankfully not forced on the English track.
Don't mistake the opening war sequence, so full of movement, proper directionality, and nice little bass thumps to be what the rest of the film will sound like. It's somewhat of a bait and switch, really, for your ears. The rest of the film is quite reserved, with little rear activity, no bass save for a few tiny moments, mostly through orchestral music, and less movement than my collection of Troll dolls on Ebay. At first, even past the silly war sequence, I thought I was going to be in for an audio treat, as rears got the nicest echo from lectures, and dialogue felt so clean and clear. The score hit all angles proper, with nice separation. But then the entire thing just went lazy. There are more than a few scenes that have a high pitched ringing (though not from any score or musical instrument), one that is more noticeable than the one that some hear in the background of 'Sin City.' Next, directionality seems abandoned in some sequences, like the squash game that sounds the same from any angle. Then there is a character whose entire performance is dubbed over, and done so very poorly, to the point that lips don't even come close to what is heard. Throw in two audio hiccups (one at 1.03.01, in Hurt's dialogue, right in between lines, making it more difficult to pinpoint as intentional or a mistake, and the other at 1.34.02, where the score cuts out for a split second), and this one suddenly is quite human. One doesn't need to be good at math to subtract, and that's what I found myself doing to the score of this track the more the film played.
The supplement package on this release is not exactly barren. It just isn't compatible with most players/people. There's an audio commentary from director Alex de la Ingelsia, but it is in Spanish, with no subtitle options. There are also two trailers, one German, one English, but both are PAL (or 1080i/50) encoded.
'The Oxford Murders' doesn't quite paint-by-numbers, but it does come close. It wants to paint a picture of chaos and mystery, where the connections are staring at us while we look elsewhere, obliviously, but instead it just comes off as a random hodgepodge of a film. Koch Media's German Blu-ray has average audio and video (though both have a few technical hiccups that can ruin the experience), and extras that are no good for those only fluent in English. This may be one of those times where an import, even released as relatively early as this one is, just may not be worth the cost.