Murders are committed for love, money, hatred, justice or revenge -- but not usually as an intellectual exercise. Yet Álex de la Iglesia approaches such a string of deaths in "The Oxford Murders," adapted from mathematician Guillermo Martinez's novel. Elijah Wood and William Hurt have magnificent chemistry and give excellent performances, but the script has a lot of flab.
Martin (Wood) is a young American student at Oxford who is writing his thesis; he hopes to have the famous mathematician Arthur Seldom (John Hurt) advise him... only to have his hopes dashed.
But when Seldom visits the house where he is boarding, the two men find Martin's landlady dead -- and while at first it appears to be natural causes, the police discover that she was murdered. And when Seldom reveals that he was sent a strange message warning him about the murder, he and Martin begin speculating that they're dealing with an "intellectual serial killer."
At the same time, Martin finds himself in an odd love triangle between his landlady's neurotic daughter (Julie Cox) and a sexy Spanish nurse (Leonor Watling). But his mind is fixed on unraveling the pattern that may lead him and Seldom to the murderer -- and the greatest puzzle is one that no one may be able to figure out.
Pythagorus, the principle of uncertainty, sequential math and mathematical order versus chaos. "The Oxford Murders" feels a bit like a mathematical episode of "Masterpiece Theatre" -- vast venerable colleges, the tangled motives, and some seemingly impossible murders.And the idea of murder warnings based on sequential mathematics is a fascinating one...
... which becomes a problem, because we end up with endless, pompous discussions about truth, reality and philosophy. Eventually you just want to scream at Seldom, "Get off your butt and go detect!"
Álex de la Iglesia cloaks the movie in pale light and a bleak greyness broken by brief spatters of color, and occasionally drops in some more explosive scenes (a rather clever incident involving two buses). Unfortunately, the plot has quite a bit of flab -- Martin's romance with Lorna doesn't really add anything to the plot except a sex scene involving pasta, and his demented classmate doesn't add much more.
But there is a saving grace. Wood and Hurt are absolutely magnificent together as the yin and yang of this investigation -- one is an idealistic, somewhat naive young student, and the other is an embittered, icy old man who apparently takes a weird delight in stirring others up. Cox is a crazy-eyed mass of nerves, and Watlin is just... there. And for some reason both of them are instantly ravenous for Wood.
"The Oxford Murders" is one part murder mystery, one part mathematics, and one part deadly boring philosophical debate that screeches the plot to a halt. A flawed movie with some fascinating, glittering facets.