Self-Important Silliness Trumps Logic in 'The Oxford Murders'
It sounds impressive, all this talk of universal logic, rule-following paradoxes and absolute certainties, rolling so melodically off the tongue of John Hurt, who could bring gravitas to a reading of the phone book. Yet even Hurt, cheerfully chewing the scenery as curmudgeonly Oxford professor Arthur Seldom, cannot save Álex de la Ingelsia’s arbitrary murder mystery from its own miscalculations.
Adapted from a novel by mathematical logician Guillermo Martínez, The Oxford Murders works best as a showcase for Hurt, who preaches the gospel of Wittgenstein before lecture halls packed with disciples, and Elijah Wood’s blue eyes, ablaze with earnest agitation even when his delivery falls flat.
Wood plays Martin, the eager American to whom Seldom is as much muse as teacher. (The women in Martin’s life, played by Julie Cox and Leonor Watling, wish it were otherwise.) He makes a critical mistake in his first meeting with Seldom – suggesting, contrary to the professor’s well-rehearsed sermon, that the truth is out there, somewhere. Mulder would be proud.
Seldom tears into him, but a fast partnership forms based on their shared intellectual curiosity – about codes, logical sequences and a string of murders deemed “almost imperceptible.” There’s a killer on the loose, targeting victims already at death’s door.
Could the killer be working by a twisted code of his (or her) own – murder by numbers, as another English professor, Gordon Sumner, once famously sang?
Martin thinks so, and for once Seldom agrees. But their attempts to decipher the sequence, like their own proximity to the crimes – each victim is connected, in some small way, to Seldom – do not go unnoticed. When police deduce that the culprit is likely a repressed homosexual, Martin begins to see his student-teacher relationship as a potential liability.
Still they proceed, slaves to their overactive imaginations, and in the course of their investigation we encounter a nutty professor (Repo Man director Alex Cox) driven to madness by his theorems; a former Seldom disciple (Burn Gorman, gamely overacting) disillusioned by the old man’s preference to sell books than teach; and a wild-eyed red herring played by Dominique Pinon.
Those seeking a tense, smartly written adaptation of Martínez’s novel will be disappointed. As a whodunit, Oxford Murders lacks the essential element of danger. The stakes never seem high enough – it’s like watching a pair of pseudo intellectuals overanalyzing a game of Clue. Hurt sells the silliness almost convincingly, but even from such a skillful pitchman it comes out sounding, finally, like junk.