A lot of directors stumble when they make the transition from independent films to studio productions, and E. Elias Merhige is the latest casualty. His “Shadow of the Vampire” (1999), which marked his move from underground to more mainstream status, was an imaginative blend of creepiness and humor focusing on the making of “Nosferatu” in 1922. “Suspect Zero” tries to take advantage of Merhige’s forte–demonstrated not only in “Vampire” but also in his truly bizarre 1991 picture “Begotten”–which consists of suddenly plunking disturbing imagery before viewers to give them a jolt. But apart from that technique, which is employed much too frequently and clumsily here, the picture turns out to be a serial killer movie that’s substandard despite one’s low expectations of the genre–dank, dreary and decidedly dull. Anyone who loved “The Watcher” will take to this as well–all two of you out there.
The heroic investigator this time around is Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), a disgraced FBI agent who’s been unceremoniously shifted from his Dallas post to the doldrums of Albuquerque as a result of blowing the case against a slimy sex fiend by violating both his civil rights and international law. The humiliating change of venue puts him almost immediately in the middle of the investigation of a gruesome murder at a diner’s parking lot which shortly reveals a second victim as well. The case has the dubious benefit of bringing him back into contact with his old partner (and erstwhile girlfriend) Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss), who’s sent from Dallas to help, but otherwise it proves a terrible strain on the poor fellow. Mackelway himself is contacted by the killer, who’s quickly identified as one Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley), an obsessive type who–it’s later revealed–was once an agency “remote viewer”–an intuitive person trained to perceive through mental power alone the facts (and perpetrators) of distant crimes. (The people in charge named their project Icarus–a pretty dumb choice, since Icarus was the fellow in Greek mythology who perished when he flew too close to the sun on the wings his father had built.) Now Ryan’s using his powers to target serial killers, particularly one he refers to as “suspect zero,” a man responsible for tens, if not hundreds, of murders committed all over the country. An exhausting cat-and-mouse game follows, with O’Ryan effectively luring Mackelway to the quarry through faxed messages and what appear to be mental images directly implanted into the agent’s brain. (The one innovation here–though it’s not a good one–is that we have two telepaths toiling away simultaneously, with Mackelway sometimes having visions of what O’Ryan perceives from a distance.)
This precis has straightened out and simplified what the screenplay by Zak Penn and Billy Ray presents as a disjointed muddle, which Merhige further obfuscates with his penchant for nightmarish inserts and bizarre montages. (Ray’s participation is especially saddening, since he was responsible for the recent “Shattered Glass,” a superb film in every respect.) Eckhart, whose efforts to ascend to leading-man status after his long association with Neil La Bute have all proven missteps, makes a singularly colorless protagonist, while Kingsley smolders and rages much too extravagantly as the tormented O’Ryan. (Perhaps all that pent-up anger results from the recollection of how he had to humiliate himself by being in “Thunderbirds.”) Moss makes virtually no impression at all (to be honest, the role is a thankless one), and neither does anyone else in the supporting cast. The dim, dismal look of the film does nothing for the reputations of production designer Ida Random, who’s worked with the likes of Lawrence Kasdan, Brian DePalma, Barry Levinson and Danny DeVito, or cinematographer Michael Chapman, who collaborated in the past with luminaries like Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne and Philip Kaufman; nor will Clint Mansell’s frantic score help his.
At one point in “Suspect Zero,” an old tape showing Project Icarus trainees pops up, in which the participants are given instructions that the filmmakers would probably like to be imposed on their viewers, too: “Don’t close your eyes. Don’t think.” Then there’s the wonderful moment when Benjamin finally gets to speak with Mackelway directly, and sobs about the horrible things that he and his fellow remote viewers glimpsed: “We saw things no man should see”–presumably like this movie, which is aptly titled: zero thrills, zero sense, zero chance.