A rainy night, a missing child’s face on a milk carton, a doll’s head, some skritchy camerawork. Suspect Zero opens with a barrage of standard serial killer movie components. The mood is spooky, the murk ominous.
Such obvious quotation demonstrates knowledge of the genre (knowledge likely shared by most viewers), and from here, the film picks at conventions in ways that are only occasionally notable. Directed by Elias Merhige, whose elegant Shadow of a Vampire (2000) turned classic monster movie clichés inside out, Suspect Zero takes up a similar deconstruction project, but less effectively. The killer is Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley), introduced right off as he solicits a victim—a sloppy, unsympathetic restaurant supplies salesman—in a diner. By the time he’s popped up in the back seat of poor Harold’s (Kevin Chamberlin) 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.
Now it’s time to introduce the moral-minded investigator, FBI agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart). Recently reassigned to Albuquerque following a case meltdown back in sexier agency hub Dallas, he’s moping about the lack of “action” in the boonies. His new boss, Charleton (Harry Lennix), is mostly unsympathetic, but becomes intrigued by his new guy’s background when Mackelway is invited to reenter the game by O’Ryan. The invite comes by fax, first of all, and then by clues 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 per 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.
This last aspect is the film’s most intriguing, for it turns out that O’Ryan also has some connection with the Bureau, 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 busies himself by tracking down clues deposited in his way, finding a series of scratched-up-scribbled-in notebooks and horrific-nightmare drawings left behind in the basement where O’Ryan once stayed (see also, those journals by Seven‘s John Doe). “I think we’ve got an obsessive-compulsive here,” he mutters, while sorting through the evidence. Um, yes.
Accompanying Mackelway on his investigation 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, but of course he does.) Their relationship unnecessarily personalizes some fearsome moments, and 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!” At which point, Fran walks in: Mackelway’s seeming communion is broken and he’s suitably embarrassed.
The script, credited to Zak Penn (Inspector Gadget) and Billy Ray (who wrote and directed the remarkable Shattered Glass), indulges in elaborate academic-speak, in order to explain its premise, initiated when Mackelway consults one Professor Dates (Robert Towne, of all people), O’Ryan’s former criminology instructor. He goes on about patterns of serial killing and black holes and random killers who leave no clues, when Mackelway helpfully notes that a serial killer is, rather by definition, “condemned to repetition.” The professor smiles, “He is until he isn’t.” Intelligent stylization and extreme creepiness aside (again, Seven comes to mind as a model of how effective such recombinations can be), it appears that the serial killer movie is similarly condemned.