Scary Movies (and Super Creeps) – The Oxford Murders

Every week Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a horror movie worth checking out. Today: Math is murder to solve.

I’m not the biggest fan of math around. Algebra and calculus classes used to send me into a cold sweet during school. I still have recurring dreams where I’m still stuck in finance class. That’s why it’s such a surprise I dig The Oxford Murders, a crime movie that’s heavily steeped in mathematical discussion.

Álex de la Iglesia’s stylish mystery is a crime noir for the overly educated. Stuffed with as many references to advanced mathematics and philosophical concepts as it is with talk of death and crime, the movie is a bit overbearing in its stuffiness at times but remains a highly entertaining throwback to classic murder mysteries.

Elijah Wood plays Martin, an American student who arrives at the University of Oxford hoping to coax distinguished professor Arther Seldom (John Hurt) out of semi-retirement so that he may serve as Martin’s thesis supervisor.

Martin is obsessed with Seldom — going as far as to rent a room in the house of Mrs. Eagleton (Anna Massey), an elderly widow and old friend of Seldom. This connection doesn’t prove enough to woo Seldom, though, when Martin becomes the center of a public verbal thrashing from the professor during a lecture on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of absolute truth.

When all seems lost and Martin, butt hurt from the humiliation he received at the hands of his hero, prepares to head back to America, he finally gets his chance to work with Seldom when the two of them become entrenched in the mysterious death of Mrs. Eagleton after they both coincidently discover her body at the same time.

With the only clue to the woman’s murder being the first in what seems to be a logic series of symbols, Seldom and Martin team-up to decipher the pattern and catch the killer. Their intellectual partnership gains immediacy as additional bodies begin piling up — each bringing with them additional entries in the logical series.

As the two continue their investigation, the list of suspects grows. Beth Eagleton (Julie Cox) is the unmarried daughter of Mrs. Eagleton — a musician-by-trade who’s bitter at her mother for driving away every other relationship she’s had. Yuri Podorov (Burn Gorman) is a disillusioned mathematics student upset with Seldom for rejecting his mentorship request and for supposedly stealing his mathematics work. Lorna (Leonor Watling) is a Spanish nurse who quickly falls for Martin yet has a sexual past with Seldom. She also seems to know a bit too much about how each victim dies.

Acclaimed Spanish director de la Iglesia is a filmmaker who knows his craft. He fills The Oxford Murders with long, beautiful tracking shots, a rich color palette and a well-defined vision for the film that at once sets it apart from the crowd without running ramshod over the movies that inspired it.

The Oxford Murders is clearly influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock and his contemporaries. Besides the film’s visual touches, the movie’s dialogue features the pit-pat banter of a ‘50s murder mystery — with emotional scuff marks left all over the scenery as actors tear into the script with a pace that may not have the most natural flow but sounds just right to the ears of a film fan.

If the film’s Hitchcockian tone wasn’t enough, The Oxford Murders also decides it wants to be educational as well. Thrown into the mix is a rapid-fire artillery of advanced philosophical concepts debated and theorized by Martin and Seldom to no end as the two work through the film’s central mystery. Reminiscent of What the Bleep Do We Know or Waking Life, this sometimes overbearing introduction into advanced theories may leave casual audiences a little lost and bewildered but the experience is akin to an educational roller coaster through Schoolhouse Rock‘s graduate studies. The concepts used as plot devices in the film are fascinating to listen to and the way they tie into the film’s mysteries is pretty ingenious. There’s a lot going on in The Oxford Murders and the actual murders are just the cherry on top.

In fact, the actual mystery may comes across as a bit too Scooby Doo for hardcore armchair sleuths. The movie clearly points in the direction of where the film’s climax is headed long before the film rolls into its third act. That is, of course, until The Oxford Murders spins on its wheels in its last few minutes — sending audiences into a loop as last-minute revelations cause the movie to be seen in an entirely new light.

John Hurt may be in the twilight years of his life but he is at the top of his game as Arthur Seldom, an authority on logical series who still manages to feel competitive around his young protégé. There’s a fire in Hurt’s eyes and a storm in his belly that audiences haven’t seen in a long time. Hurt seems to be relishing his role — chewing up the sometimes-impenetrable theory-weighted dialogue and shooting it out like bullets from a gun.

As Martin, Elijah Wood more than holds his own in the many scenes he shares with Hurt. Obsessive with the mathematician to the point where it threatens to destroy every other relationship in his life, Martin feels driven to prove to Seldom that he can keep up with the senior analysts’ mind. Wood’s performance is one of increasing determination with a touch of targeted genius seen in some of the autistic.

While not a horror film in the traditional sense, The Oxford Murders is a thinking man’s mystery that recalls another recent international noir hit — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Whether you are a fan of crime or crunching numbers, The Oxford Murders is a stylish thriller that will equal enjoyment.

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