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I was looking forward to SUSPECT ZERO. In a time where every month brings a handful of disposable serial killer films, this one looked like it tried something original. It had all the markings of taking the tried and true formula and spicing it up with elements of sci-fi and horror. The fact that all this came from the director of SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE and the "what the hell was that?" cult fave BEGOTTEN could only be another good sign. But I was wrong. SUSPECT ZERO is just as generic and predictable as every other serial killer film you've seen in the last ten years. If there is any difference at all, it's only that SUSPECT ZERO could be even more boring.
It doesn't start out that way. In fact, the opening sequence is nothing short of brilliant, even if we have to wade through a couple brief SEVEN-inspired credits beforehand. A man sits in a booth at an isolated diner, calmly reading a newspaper. A stranger (Ben Kingsley) comes in, sits across from the man and starts showing him drawings that frighten the man to the center of his being. In a protracted psychological confrontation, he gets the man alone in his car. He slips on his rubber gloves and tells the man to pull over. The man asks him why. "Because I wouldn't want to do this at seventy miles per hour," the stranger says, "It could get messy." Man, what an opening!
Unfortunately, the entire film plummets right after that. We are introduced to disgraced FBI agent, Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart - IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, ERIN BROCKOVICH). He has been demoted to the New Mexico office after violating a suspect's rights, and allowing the confirmed serial killer go free. Almost immediately after settling into his new position, he starts receiving strange faxes. The faxes tie into the murder of the man from the first scene, a crime he is now investigating. Joining him on this is his former partner and lover, the unfortunately named Fran Kulak (Carrie-Anne Moss - THE MATRIX, MEMENTO). She is assigned to the case to help Mackelway. What a coincidence! No, really. They never explain it, it's supposed to be a complete coincidence. That's the kind of film this is.
Quickly, Mackelway figures out that the killer is a man named Benjamin O'Ryan and he is leaving obvious clues in the hopes that Mackelway will catch up with him. Mackelway discovers some of O'Ryan's odd drawings and sees messages aimed directly at Mackelway. O'Ryan claims to be a former FBI agent who was part of a top secret group. Building on the theory of remote viewing, the group could put themselves into a trance-like state and see serial killers commit their crimes. By writing down a description of the surroundings, smells and possibly even physical features, he can catch up with the killers. O'Ryan does this and dispatches them before they can hurt anyone else.
O'Ryan has a theory about a serial killer he calls Suspect Zero, someone who has evaded capture precisely because he has not established any kind of pattern or left any clues to his whereabouts. He has just murdered at random.
The only good thing about SUSPECT ZERO is - surprise, surprise - Ben Kingsley, and he's excellent. He embodies O'Ryan so completely that it is absolutely chilling. He exudes a mental superiority to everyone in the film (including the screenwriter) and shows himself to be a cold but ferocious killer. Also, when the film goes there, it shows how he is tormented by his abilities. But how can he stop when he knows there are more killers out there, particularly Suspect Zero? He has style, grace and confidence. Kingsley is a thin, bald man in his sixties who nevertheless looks incredible in a black leather jacket. I'm 28 and I wish I looked half this cool.
Unfortunately, Eckhart is on screen far more than Kingsley and that's a real shame. I don't know what it is about this guy. I've seen him do great work in the films of Neil LaBute, even if I'm not a fan of many of the films themselves. When not at the hands of someone like LaBute, Steven Soderbergh or Sean Penn however, he has stuck in some pretty lousy roles. He doesn't do one thing here I could really pinpoint as being wrong. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that Eckhart was flat and boring in the lead here. There is nothing in his role here that is much different than his role in THE CORE last year.
But the one who really gets the short end of the acting stick is Carrie-Anne Moss. She is stuck in a thankless role, that of the partner who every now and then plays devil's advocate but for the most part, stays quiet and out of the way. Typically Moss has done best when she is able to play a more complex woman, hence her multi-layered performance in MEMENTO is her best to date, as opposed to say THE CREW. There is no point to Moss' role in SUSPECT ZERO. Therefore, it's one of her worst performances, although she does try. The only conceivable purpose for her being here is to provide some relief to a male dominated cast. If her role were excised from the film entirely, few would notice.
Everything else is tedious and frustrating. The interesting idea at the center of SUSPECT ZERO was the remote viewing angle. But if you take away Kingsley's skilled performance, the whole thing plays out like a gimmick, and not a particularly well thought-out one at that. For instance, O'Ryan mentions that every member of the group has suffered horribly from it, but mentions that people who did similar jobs in the military and other wings of espionage are just fine. Of course, this demands explanation but the film offers none. There are no answers as to why the FBI's group paid a price no one else seems to have done. What was so different this time out, other than the crimes being investigated?
Even worse, the film completely buries the most intriguing part of the film. The whole reason why O'Ryan seeks out Mackelway specifically is that he believes Mackelway possesses the same ability he does. It may not have been developed but that does not mean it isn't present. The film never explains how Mackelway could have this ability since he has never been tapped by any of the programs. If it is a natural ability, what causes it? All these things required explanation and we get none. Not that it matters since the film pretty much forgets about this aspect of the story most of the time. By the end, the whole subject has been pretty much tossed aside in the hopes that the audience won't notice. Guess what? We did. Take out all reference to this and you essentially have a Fed who takes his job way too seriously, something we've seen countless times before.
How could anything get this sloppy? Blame it on a screenplay by Zak Penn. While director E. Elias Merhige has been doing fascinating things with horror and fantasy, Penn has written BEHIND ENEMY LINES, INSPECTOR GADGET and PCU. Reportedly Penn's script was good enough to get the interest of several parties, so maybe it's the rewrites by Billy Ray, whose credits include the bombs VOLCANO and COLOR OF NIGHT that went so wrong. Still, when Penn's script isn't wantonly defying logic or basic common sense, it is dull as dirt. This remains true all the way to a generic climax capped off by an abrupt and weak-kneed ending.
Moreover, although the film takes the approach of a complex psychological thriller, it is remarkably brain dead. Although they have a name and address for O'Ryan and are interrogating people he knew, I never once saw a sketch or photo of him. We are either meant to believe that they are working without a description of O'Ryan or at least that none of the Federal Agents see any need to bring this information along so as to get information from people. That not enough for you? One of O'Ryan's calling cards is the design seen on the poster. He leaves this everywhere, including the bodies of his victims where the design is carved with a knife. Mackelway walks around showing the design to people saying, "Have you seen this? Circle with a slash?" The film is half over before some random looney points out to him that it's not a circle with a slash but a zero. Mackelway is stunned and I couldn't believe my ears. You mean none of the agents even entertained the possibility? It seemed so patently obvious what the design once, even without referring to the film's title, that I didn't even think it was a circle when I first saw it. Incidentally, I know government agencies have been in a bind investigating terrorists and all, but don't they usually assign a basic task force to a serial killer case? Here, it's Eckhart and Moss. Or since Moss doesn't do anything, just Eckhart, a Fed with psychological problems who was thrown out of his last position because he screwed up another serial killer case. Even Eckhart's co-workers have nothing to do with the case. Wow, I feel safer already.
I would place the blame solely on Penn but really, Merhige should have known better. He should have taken the script in for rewrites. He wrote BEGOTTEN and okay, Hollywood probably would never allow him to instill the same amount of abstract insanity into a major film. But that doesn't mean Merhige couldn't have at least brought the same directing style that made SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE such a treat. But Merhige's direction is flat and uninspired.
SUSPECT ZERO will mercifully die a quick death at the box office and no, this is one film that probably won't find an audience on DVD. They had an opportunity to do something different and blew it. Here is a film that can take up space on the shelves next to TAKING LIVES, TWISTED, TRAPPED or any other random thriller. Merhige should take stock of how the Hollywood machine has caused him to make such a boring and disposable film. Or maybe he should just blame himself and ask for forgiveness. Meanwhile, Kingsley still comes out smelling like roses. But it's quite a shock so soon after THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. If his new strategy is giving good performances in bad movies, his decision to work for Uwe Boll is making a lot more sense.