“I did not set out to make a serial killer genre film, I did not set out to make a film about serial killers. I set out to express something much more deep, about the nature of the unconscious and the nature of justice and the nature of how the human mind works.” Director Elias Merhige’s ambitions are surely admirable. And he’s right, to an extent, for Suspect Zero is a terrific-looking film, intelligently composed and well-acted. But the script—credited to Zak Penn and Billy Ray—is a serial killer film, complete with gimmick. And so the director appears to be up against it.
Part derivative, part original, and part twisted, Suspect Zero quotes obviously from other serial killer films, beginning with its first shot. As the camera tracks up out a rainy muck, panning over various objects, Mehrige describes each moment, his tone excruciatingly self-serious. He doesn’t waste his time with technical background or what happened on any given day on the set. He’s explaining every image, narrating its seemingly moral, seemingly psychic resonance. “We come out of the unconscious, out of the earth,” he says, “out of the bowels of the earth, and what do we see? A lonely can tossed aside, a baseball that’s been used for how many games? A broken doll that was once loved. Where is its owner?” Or again, as the camera closes on a kid’s bike: “Now we see the bicycle… Its wheel stops moving, symbolic of the death of this missing person.” You get the idea.
Merhige’s previous film, Shadow of a Vampire (2000), worked a considerably more elegant magic with classic monster movie clichés. Suspect Zero‘s deconstruction project is less effective. Its point of departure is killer Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley), a former FBI agent introduced as he solicits an easy-to-lose victim, Harold (Kevin Chamberlin), a sloppy, unsympathetic restaurant supplies salesman. As O’Ryan walks through the diner doorway, the camera is upside down, so raindrops appear to fall up: as Mehrige explains, the shot “was carefully chosen to turn the viewer, to turn you upside down, to show you that this is not the ordinary world anymore, that a force of nature has just walked in.” Hardly a newsflash as to what this sort of shot might mean, but again, you see where he’s going.
By the time O’Ryan has popped up in the back seat of poor Harold’s car and tells him to pull over (“Because I wouldn’t want to do this at 70 miles per hour, it could be dangerous”), the film has more or less aligned you with the smug and refined killer, Hannibal Lecter-style. That Harold turns out to be a pedophile makes O’Ryan’s self-appointed mission all the more disturbing: he’s part vigilante, but more desperate victim, looking for way to shut down his own capacity to see into killers’ minds. And where did he develop his incredible ability for this utterly debilitating “remote viewing”? Why, through a special FBI training program.
Enter O’Ryan’s combination hunter-and-prey, FBI agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart). Recently reassigned to Albuquerque following a case meltdown back in sexier agency hub Dallas, he’s moping about being kicked back to the “minors.” His new boss, Charleton (Harry Lennix), is mostly insensitive, but his interest is piqued when Mackelway is invited to reenter the game by O’Ryan. The invite comes first by fax, then by clues left at murder scenes, namely, a crossed-out zero, typically carved into victims, whose eyelids are also removed (“always open,” having to do with the remote viewing business, the inability of the killer to escape his own vision and fate).
As usual in such sagas, Mackelway and O’Ryan share a history, and the killer means to re-engage his old adversary, who was somehow “worthy” in ways that current detectives on the case just cannot match. For his part, Mackelway believes he needs this high profile case, for it promises a way back to the show. And so he starts hiding out in the fax room, reading missives from his object/tormentor, immersing himself in the psychosis that might reinstate him into the professional hierarchy by which he measures his self-worth. Or, as Mehrige helpfully explains, “The story is very much about Mac being drawn into the whirlpool to the center of the circle to this abyss that is Benjamin O’Ryan and the legacy of Benjamin O’Ryan and his use of remote viewing.”
This idea is the film’s most intriguing, based on a real Cold War program (as described in a four-part, 30-minute featurette, “What We See When We Close Our Eyes,” wherein actual trainees and others describe the concept and process, as well as an 11-minute demonstration). O’Ryan’s past with the Bureau is the , and not only that he’s delusional in thinking he’s a former agent. Given the political and cultural troubles currently affecting the public image of intelligence and law enforcement institutions in the States, this connection might be more relevant, or more disturbing, than it first appears. The FBI, like other such agencies in the movies and elsewhere, puts its own interests before those of its workers, and so Mackelway’s difficulties are only compounded when he begins to dig into agency methods and objectives.
As this digging is rendered through Mackelway’s perspective, the movie balances precariously between multiple points of view. O’Ryan is possessed of an especially disjointed perspective, as he is what the film is called a “remote viewer,” trained indeed by the agency to get into criminals’ heads and witness crimes through a kind of heated red haze. (These images aren’t so much disturbing as they are tiresome, especially when the film has used the gimmick six or seven times.) Mackelway finds a series of scratched-up-scribbled-in notebooks and horrific-nightmare drawings left behind in the basement where O’Ryan once stayed (see also: Seven or Spider). “I think we’ve got an obsessive-compulsive here,” he mutters. Really?
Accompanying Mackelway is Agent Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss), his former work and life partner, now installed so she can look worried about his re-descent into spirit-rattling obsession about this damn case. (“I don’t need a babysitter,” he grumps). Their relationship unnecessarily personalizes some fearsome moments, confuses others. For, again according to generic edicts, the film’s primary relationship is the one between the killer and the cop: O’Ryan and Mackelway must see themselves in each other. Or, as Mackelway puts it during one particularly fitful engagement with his clues, all pinned to his office wall like a big map: “You want me to see what you see. I’m trying to see it!”
The film is about fear and seeing too much, and yes, as Mehrige helpfully notes, “We’re not safe anymore. Even in the middle of nowhere, we’re not safe.” Mackelway’s investigation leads him to consult one Professor Dates (Robert Towne, of all people), O’Ryan’s former criminology instructor. The professor discusses patterns of serial killing and black holes and random killers who leave no clues, when Mackelway helpfully notes that a serial killer is, by definition, “condemned to repetition.” The professor smiles, “He is until he isn’t.” Intelligent stylization and extreme creepiness aside, it appears that the serial killer movie is similarly condemned.