Credit director E. Elias Merhige (2000's "Shadow of the Vampire")
for aspiring to create a film within the serial killer genre that
wavers occasionally from the beaten path. "Suspect Zero," a psychological
thriller in the mold of 1991's "Silence of the Lambs" and 1995's "Se7en"
without ever coming off as a carbon copy, is not one of the best of
its kind, but is easily superior to recent duds like "Twisted" and
"Taking Lives." And while the plotting doesn't exactly reinvent the
wheel, it does skew conventions enough to leave the viewer edgy and
wondering what will unfold with each progressive scene.
For sticky reasons that gradually become clear, FBI agent Thomas Mackelway
(Aaron Eckhart) has just relocated to the dusty New Mexico town of
Albuquerque, where he is promptly put on the case of a suspected serial
killer who leaves a crossed-out zero at the scenes of the crimes.
Aiding in his investigation is ex-girlfriend and fellow agent Fran
Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss). The two come to discover that the alleged
murderer of these men—Benjamin O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley)—is actually offing
other serial killers across the country, including his latest target,
a truck driver who has been abducting children for years. Still, Mackelway
suspects that something else is going on, and for reasons he isn't
sure of, when he starts receiving foreboding messages in the mail from O'Ryan.
Written by Zak Penn (2001's "Behind Enemy Lines"), "Suspect Zero"
is notably more quiet and ruminative than the average serial killer
thriller, following the journey Thomas Mackelway goes on in his attempt
to solve the mystery of the murders and figure out what connection
he shares—if any—with the killer. Director E. Elias Merhige intentionally
strips the characters of any joy and the story of any visceral release.
Even the climactic action sequence—its only one—is low-key and subdued,
free of cliched, big-movie heroics, and the soundtrack screeching
out precisely when one would expect it to take off. In these characteristics,
the film resembles 2001's vastly underrated "The Pledge," directed
by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson as a retired detective whose
final, unsolved case comes back to haunt him.
What "Suspect Zero" does have, in spades, is a keen sense of innate
foreboding, rattling tension out of moments of meticulously graphed
quiescence and isolation. The cinematography of its desert New Mexico
setting, by Michael Chapman (2000's "The Watcher"), is sharp and brooding,
taking on an eerily solemn beauty. And, unlike most thrillers of its
kind, the biggest question mark on the characters and viewers' minds
is not who the perpetrator is, but why he is committing the crimes.
Adding depth to the story is the intriguing subject of 'remote viewing,'
a sort of trained version of ESP that makes for some visually sprightly
material, as well as the mystery surrounding O'Ryan's connection with
Mackelway, and the source of the visions and headaches that both of
them are experiencing. The trailers and TV spots foolishly give away
too much—they plainly spell out that the film is about a serial killer
hunting down other serial killers—but, fortunately, there are more
plot developments and revelations once this particular mystery is uncovered.
Primarily a three-character ensemble (the rest of the supporting cast
is tangential, at most), the performances from Aaron Eckhart (2003's
"Paycheck") and Carrie-Anne Moss (2003's "The Matrix Reloaded") are
proficient without standing out. Although Eckhart's Mackelway is the
protagonist, he is flawed and far from heroic; because there are doubts
about who he really is and shady circumstances surrounding his past,
it is difficult to outwardly like and get behind him. Moss' Fran Kulok
is more thankless; she doesn't serve much purpose to the story, and
seems to be on hand simply because there calls for a token female
sidekick. Ben Kingsley (2003's "House of Sand and Fog"), redeeming
himself after the lousy "Thunderbirds," is the real star of the picture,
going far and beyond the call of duty to bring surprising layers of
pathos to his enigmatically threatening Benjamin O'Ryan.
"Suspect Zero" ends underwhelmingly, not adding up to as much as one
is lead to anticipate, but remains admirable in its smart avoidance
of a predictable fight/shoot-out. Indeed, what transcends the film
from its stock genre origins is that the ending is not about whether
the "villain" is killed, but about whether he deserves to die at all,
and why. The final weekend of August is usually a barren wasteland
for cinema, a time when studios dump their black sheep because they
have no financial faith in them. "Suspect Zero," a minor achievement
but a refreshingly atypical one, nonetheless, can lay claim to not
deserving such a dim fate.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman