By Don Simpson | August 6, 2010
Director: Álex de la Iglesia
Writer: Jorge Guerricaechevarria (screenplay), Álex de la Iglesia (screenplay), Guillermo Martínez (novel)
Starring: Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonor Watling
To quote the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, from his treatise Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (which was penned — at least according to The Oxford Murders — smack in the middle of a WWI battlefield): “There is no such truth outside of mathematics.” The Oxford Murders goes one step beyond the question of whether or not we can handle the truth; it posits the question: “Can we know the truth?”
Enter Martin (Elijah Wood), an oversees student donning a black leather jacket. Martin shows up in Julia Eagleton’s (Anna Massey) Oxford, England home — a home that is decorated with noteworthy mathematical artifacts such as a replica of an Enigma machine and a photograph of Alan Turing. Julia’s husband, Harry Eagleton, was the [fictional] developer of the [fictional] concept of factual dimensions — Harry died in a car accident alongside the wife of the driver of the vehicle, Arthur Seldom (John Hurt). An incoming American graduate student at the University of Oxford, Martin wants Arthur to be his thesis supervisor. Apparently, Martin’s residence at the Eagleton home is no coincidence. Also residing in the house is Julia’s full-time caregiver and daughter, Beth (Julie Cox); Beth is also a cellist.
During a rare public lecture by Arthur, Martin — in a pathetic attempt to attract Arthur’s attention — asserts his unwavering faith in the absolute truth of mathematics: “I believe in the number pi” (Martin contends that there is a secret meaning of numbers which leads to a secret meaning of reality). Arthur professorially responds by ridiculing Martin in front of the audience. Martin is devastated. Ready to pack his bags and return to his home in the Arizona desert, Martin returns to the Eagleton residence where he coincidentally encounters Arthur. They enter the house together to discover Julia dead.
Arthur explains to the police that he had received an anonymous note with the Eagleton residence address marked as “the first of a series”; thus he argues that a serial killer is attempting to challenge him to a game of wits. The body count builds and there is a long list of suspects — with Arthur and Martin at the very top. The “truth” of the murders will only be discovered by way of mathematical concepts, but unfortunately for most parties there is always a gulf between what is true and what is provable.
While attempting to solve the crimes, Martin finds himself in conflict with the social structure of Oxford. Martin craves (and represents) freedom, while Oxford (and its walls and history) represents suppression. Coming from the Arizona desert, Martin does not understand why the people of Oxford are the way that they are…in other words, snooty and closed-offish (classism and xenophobia are also apparent). Epitomized by the Oxford museum in which Martin meets with Arthur toward the end of the film, Oxford is apparently filled with fakes. A cognitive elitist — at least in his own mind — Martin seems to be of the opinion that his intelligence should supersede any biases that others may hold against him; though, as is evident in his condescension towards Beth, Lorna (Leonor Watling) and Inspector Petersen (Jim Carter), Martin apparently only respects fellow mathematical geniuses.
In its attempt to represent the perfect crime(s), The Oxford Murders goes beyond the elementary [my dear Watson]; the intellectual pissing contest between the leads provides heady references (such as Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox, Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, Gödel’s Theorem, circles, the Vesica Piscis, “Bormat’s Last Theorem” (meaning: Fermat’s Last Theorem), the Taniyama conjecture, Tetractys, Pythagoreans, Neopythagoreanism, Guy Fawkes, Butterfly effect) to keep the attention of the mathematicians and philosophers in the audience.
Directed by Spanish Basque director Álex de la Iglesia, The Oxford Murders takes full advantage of Kiko de la Rica’s luscious cinematography (including a few masterful tracking shots); but the acting performances feel as stunted and contrived as the murder mystery that is a foot. The plethora of the mathematical references are all just smoke and mirrors disguising the thinness and predictability of the plot, and the final reveal will surely go down as one of the most anti-climatic scenes in the history of the murder mystery genre.
The Oxford Murders is not a bad film, especially when compared to the mind-numbing murder mystery dreck that Hollywood and cable television force feed to the masses. I appreciate The Oxford Murders’ discussions of truth and reality, especially in the context of the investigation of a crime. How does anyone know what really happened? Even eye witnesses can only recall the crime from their unique (and inherently biased) perspective and experience. I could go on for hours about the existence of truth…but you’ll have to buy me a beer first.