Every so often, a movie comes along that I’m not entirely sure what to make of. Suspect Zero is one of them. The film is undeniably flawed, yet the things that work do so beautifully. I can easily imagine it being a modern classic in the thriller genre were it not for some badly bungled exposition. Usually I write my reviews within 24 hours of seeing a film; this one I had sit on for a while.
Aaron Eckhart plays Tom Mackelway, an FBI agent who has been demoted to the field office in New Mexico. Immediately after he arrives, Mackelway starts receiving strange faxes. They include missing children posters as well as bizarre charcoal drawings. Mackelway doesn’t know the significance, but he comes to believe that they are somehow connected to a series of murders he is investigating.
Ben Kingsley plays Benjamin O’Ryan, who we soon learn is a “remote viewer.” This phenomenon (which some believe is actually possible) involves going into a trance and somehow seeing what a killer is doing, simply through the power of the mind. Upon investigation, Mackelway learns that O’Ryan is responsible for the faxes, which are clues of some sort. He also learns that O’Ryan has long been obsessed with the idea of a “suspect zero” – a serial killer who can never be caught because he follows no traceable pattern. The questions arise: is O’Ryan really trying to help, or is he in fact the one who has been killing people? Is he suspect zero?
Here was my dilemma. For the first 40 minutes, I was very involved in Suspect Zero. Ben Kingsley is one of my favorite actors, and he gives a very intense performance that had me glued. Aaron Eckhart – another actor I really like – is also good as the FBI agent who may be more disturbed than he lets on. Director E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire) sets an appropriately eerie mood, particularly in the scenes set at murder sites, where all the victims have had an eyelid cut off. The moments in which O’Ryan engages in remote viewing also have a spooky mood, as a low humming noise fills the soundtrack and various colored lens filters distort the image.
And then – all of a sudden – I didn’t understand what was going on anymore. There was something about the dates on the faxes matching up to locations on a map; I never did understand what that was about. Nor did I understand how O’Ryan snuck into the police station and put an important piece of information in the pocket of Mackelway’s jacket. It’s also not clear where Mackelway is getting some of his leads on O’Ryan; he almost seems to know certain things because the screenplay requires him to know them in order to proceed. Things get very confusing very quickly.
This confusion lasted about 20 minutes, and I feared that the film had gone irreparably off track after a promising start. Then I started to pick things up again. Not everything made sense; there were still a number of details that didn’t quite seem to fit right. However, I was able to grasp the general direction the story was taking. The ending is a bit jarring, making you think one thing, then another. Whatever else it lacked, I think I found the basic theme of the story, and I responded to it.
It really wouldn’t be possible to convey my feelings about Suspect Zero without telling you what exactly I responded to. Therefore, if you don’t want to know what happens, skip the next paragraph.
I think this is a story about a tormented man. O’Ryan has been trained by a secret military group to do this remote viewing but, as he says, they never taught him how to turn it off. As a result, he’s been tortured for years by images of grisly murders. O’Ryan just wants to visions to stop. During the time frame depicted in the movie, O’Ryan is tracking down a real suspect zero – a truck driver who goes cross-country abducting children. Along the way, he murders several other scumbags who have killed kids and teenagers. (These are the murders Mackelway is investigating.) O’Ryan engages the FBI agent because he knows Mackelway “fits the profile” of a remote viewer based on the scandal that led to the demotion. He also knows that by flaunting his own murders, he can get Mackelway to pursue and kill him, thereby ending the torment. It’s the only way he can think of to make the visions stop. That’s a pretty fascinating concept, and even though some of the details of the plot don’t add up, this side of the story does. I was intrigued by the idea of O’Ryan’s weariness from years of having grisly visions.
After a lot of thought, I decided that I liked and would recommend Suspect Zero. Had a little more attention been paid to exposition in the middle, this would probably have ranked right up there with The Silence of the Lambs. As it is, the theme of the story manages to shine through some of the more muddled parts. Flawed though it may be, I appreciated the thoughtful – and haunting – ideas the movie expresses.
( out of four)
Suspect Zero is rated R for violent content, language and some nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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