Peppered with the kind of beautifully executed sequences that have drawn favorable comparisons to Hitchcock, imbued with a playful macabre streak so predominant in his best works, and fueled by a handful of genuinely fascinating ideas, Álex de la Iglesia's The Oxford Murders is nonetheless a frustrating viewing experience. Uncompromisingly bookish, the film's many positive features are buried in a heap of interminable, overly rich dialogue so steeped in mathematical theory that the film should come with subtitles for the arithmetically impaired. Yet The Oxford Murders does display enough of the director's stylistic flair to hint that there's some real talent at work behind the scenes, and some flamboyant supporting performances keep the watchability factor fairly high even when we're starting to feel like Jim Carter's hapless detective in the film (who looks like he's going to have an aneurysm every time John Hurt or Elijah Wood open their mouths). Much like him, we must endure excessive speechification to get any real answers, but at least we get the savory sight of a naked Wood smattered with spaghetti sauce while we're waiting.
American graduate student Martin (Wood) is at Oxford attempting to convince famed mathematician Arthur Seldom (John Hurt) to oversee his thesis when the pair discover the dead body of Martin's elderly landlady. Shortly thereafter, Arthur reveals to the police that he received a note prior to the murder proclaiming it "the first of the series" and adorned with a drawing of a perfect circle. Surmising that there is a serial killer at work, Martin begins working with Arthur to try and narrow down a list of suspects. Meanwhile, Martin also grows romantically involved with Lorna (Leonor Watling), a pretty yet secretive nurse, and fends off advances from Beth (Julie Cox), his late landlady's troubled yet talented musician daughter. When a second and then a third body turn up, each with notes and accompanying symbols, Martin and Arthur begin collaborating with the befuddled Inspector Peterson (Carter) to crack the code before any more lives are lost. Unfortunately for both the living and the dead, no amount of mathematical or philosophical reasoning will help to solve the case, because the truth is far more complex than the amateur detectives, or the seasoned professionals, realize.
Adapted from author Guillermo Martinez's best-selling novel by director de la Iglesia and longtime collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría, The Oxford Murders feels stylistically restrained compared to the director's flamboyant previous works, and plays out like a condensed version of a particularly complex murder novel. Philosophy and mathematics majors may have fun picking apart the various theories bandied about by the esteemed professor and his would-be student, but despite the screenwriters' best efforts to streamline the dialogue, the many scenes in which Martin and Arthur roam the streets or sit in restaurants pondering the crimes stifle the momentum of a fairly conventional, yet skillfully executed mystery.
However, a cast of colorful characters do help to keep boredom at bay. Hurt is compulsively watchable as the brilliant but lonely Arthur, Cox is enjoyably off-kilter as the unstable Beth, and Burn Gorman steals virtually every scene he's in as an embittered student with a mysterious grudge. Despite receiving precious little screen time, Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon is wonderfully unhinged as the devoted father of an ailing little girl, though the meatiest supporting role goes to actor/director Alex Cox as a severely disabled former colleague of Seldom's who was driven to madness while striving to break free of patterned thought. His scene and another recalling a perfectly executed murder are among the best in the film, and the two that offer the best representation of de la Iglesia's inventiveness as a visual storyteller. The only actor who truly falls flat is also unfortunately the one in the lead; as Arizona native Martin, it's awkward to hear Wood repeatedly using British exclamations with an American accent, and watching him kiss Watling is like watching a Chihuahua try to eat an apple. The less said about the spaghetti-spattered love scene, the better.
The Oxford Murders may not be de la Iglesia's worst film (that distinction would most likely go to the shockingly dull Eurowestern homage 800 Bullets), but it's certainly his most restrained, and that's what makes it such a disappointment. When it was announced that Elijah Wood and John Hurt would be headlining the director's second English-language film (following Dance with the Devil), stateside fans who have been singing his praises for years held out hope that this would be his big opportunity to make headway in the international film scene. Apparently it just wasn't meant to be; two long years after doing bang-up business in Spain, the film was quietly released in America by Magnolia Pictures, all but ensuring that de la Iglesia will -- at least for now -- remain a well-kept secret to film lovers.