You know how fear is scary? Well, director E. Elias Merhige is into that, especially in his new serial-killer thriller, Suspect Zero. Absent, however, is the dark-comic malevolence the director smartly cultivated in his successful and disquieting Shadow of the Vampire a few years ago, bullied and bulldozed out of the way by stock noirish chills and a passé, late-blooming David Fincher fetish. Merhige is too talented to be dismissed as a wannabe, but here his gifts for clever angles and oogy feelings are tethered to blasé genre redundancies and clunky storytelling.
Our Clarice Starling this time is named Tom Mackelway, played by Aaron Eckhart very much as if he's wondering how soon he can flee the hot, uneasy locations. Conveniently, he's supposed to look uncomfortable and detached, because Tom is an FBI agent booted from the Dallas bureau to teensy little Albuquerque, due to a significant professional faux pas. He now suffers chronic migraines, becomes vaguely paranoid, and -- as luck would have it -- gets to investigate a gruesome and narratively vital highway homicide mere minutes into his new job.
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We've already met the carved-up stiff, a portly traveling salesman. The man merely wants his coffee topped off but ends up with his eyelids lopped off, courtesy of Ben Kingsley. In real life, Kingsley is about as tall and threatening as a garden gnome, but as evidenced in Sexy Beast, he relishes playing the psycho. Here he really puts out as a crazed mystery man with an almost-American accent.
Merhige has done his best to raise the ante incorporating into the flat script the practice of "remote viewing," an apparently legitimate psychic technique wherein the trained user feels, sees, and records information outside his own realm of experience.
With any movie, thriller or otherwise, a competent, intriguing setup brings nervous tension, because we're anxious to see if the storytellers can keep us involved, close with a flourish, and send us out satisfied. This is where Suspect Zero stumbles. The title refers to the ultimate elusive killer, who leaves no clues and operates out of sheer malevolence. This concept is finally paid off in a way that's admittedly unusual but also surprisingly tepid.
Read Gregory Weinkauf's thoughts on director E. Elias Merhige