DVD Review of Suspect Zero

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/31/06


  In the DVD of the film Suspect Zero director E. Elias Merhige (who also directed Shadow Of The Vampire) proves that a) he can direct better than average film thrillers, but b) he’s one wacky guy. I’ll elaborate later.

  The film is based upon the idea that the FBI’s long discredited ‘remote viewing’ experiments of the 1970s and 1980s were actually successful and drove some of its participating agents insane. One of them, Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley) is now, himself a serial killer, albeit a serial killer of serial killers, whom he tracks down by connecting to the images of their crimes in his head, acting as the Charles Bronsonian Avenging Angel (see Death Wish and its sequels) of the film. The film is about his attempts to recruit and groom a replacement named Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), from the FBI, as he tracks down a serial killer he terms Suspect Zero, because he has figured out the way to avoid detection is to, unlike most serial killers, constantly change his modus operandi. The first half of the film, where Mackelway is investigating O’Ryan’s crimes, is outstanding, with very believable portraits of the two men- far more so than, say, in a film like Heat. O’Ryan taunts Mackelway by fax, to the point  where he turns to….an ex-lover, conveniently reassigned by the FBI, from Dallas, to assist Mackelway in his new digs in the Albuquerque, New Mexico office.

  Here are the first creaks and moans of air being let out of the film, and the second half is not nearly as good as the first. Carrie-Ann Moss, as Mack’s ex-lover Fran Kulok, is a totally superfluous character. Fortunately, the script treats her that way and the one brief scene where Mack confesses he still loves her passes quickly and coolly. We also learn that Mack is a disgraced agent, having pursued a serial killer across the border to Mexico for a little ‘cowboy justice’. This is also a bit trite and unneeded, but, again, as with the romance denied, little is made of this, save the killer Mack pursued ends up as one of O’Ryan’s victims when he kidnaps and rapes a girl. Kingsley gives a good performance as a tormented man, and really hides his English accent until very near the end of the film when some brogue slips out, but it’s not up to snuff with his portrayal of the psychotic Don Logan in Sexy Beast. Eckhart, who is a good actor, with good looks, who’s just never made it to A list status, gives a solid performance, but the film would have been better off focusing on O’Ryan- for two reasons: 1) his dilemma is the meat of the film, and instead of the standard thriller with a slight twist, a film from his point of view could have lifted this film closer to such films as Taxi Driver, rather than being a more costly, and slightly better, version of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, and 2) Kingsley can act by merely forcing a bead of sweat down his forehead.

  That all said, and despite other weaknesses, such as a cameo scene by writer Robert Towne (of Chinatown fame) as a professor who knew O’Ryan and ominously warns he could be Suspect Zero, the film works. It’s not overly long at an hour and forty minutes, and when it does err, it quickly moves on to something good. For example, there is the classic and unnecessary red herring scene, where Mack chases whom he thinks is Suspect Zero, driving around in a refrigerated eighteen wheeler, only to realize he’s followed a loving father and child to a carnival. This is where O’Ryan and he first meet, although how O’Ryan subdues and hog-ties the larger and more powerful Mack is never explained, and another weakness, it leads into a final chase scene in the New Mexico desert with O’Ryan, Mack, and the real Suspect Zero. In the end, the boy is saved by Fran, Mack kills Suspect Zero, and then O’Ryan begs that Mack off him. Mack refuses and Fran does the deed, when O’Ryan tries to attack Mack, to force him to kill him. The film then ends on the desert mesa.

  This is a good choice, for in the DVD features we see a terrible alternate ending where Mack has taken over O’Ryan’s role tracking down serial killers, and that would have ruined the story’s existential point- which is whether or not one must do evil to stop greater evil? The symbolism of the killer’s truck, called a fifty foot shark, references Steven Spielberg’s two earliest successful films, the telefilm Duel, and Jaws, where a big semi and a fifty foot shark are forces of natural evil, just as this killer seems to be. Another flaw is that the very fact the real Suspect Zero drives a refrigerated truck and kills kids, means he actually has a modus operandi, thus negating the supposed opremise of the film. The screenplay by Zak Penn (Incident At Loch Ness) and Billy Ray shows promise for both in the future, as long as they can indulge their more unique visions and lose the clichés. Unfortunately, in attempting to probe true evil, the film veers closer to David Fincher’s 1995 paint-by-numbers serial killer film Seven, rather than a true classic like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

  Now, as for the extra features on the DVD, there’s a documentary called What We See When We Close Our Eyes, broken up into four parts, that’s a standard featurette on the film and its premise. Then there’s the alternate ending, and a snippet of Merhige trying to ‘remote view’ in Austin, Texas, where the film was supposedly filmed. He goes out to the bridge over the Colorado River by Capital Of Texas Highway and acts all spooky, claiming that the real FBI remote viewer of the documentary has taught him how to successfully remote view. This is all bunkum, as many of the things Merhige describes in his ‘vision’ are so generic and vague as to be applicable to a hundred locations. This ‘stunt’ is right in keeping with the documentary’s use of ‘expert’ talking heads, like the discredited frauds of the Stanford Research Institute, which ‘investigated’ psychic phenomena years ago. That the film laughably mixes the idea of ‘remote viewing’ with the non-locality of physics, which only operates on a sub-atomic scale, shows a good sense for fiction, but a ridiculous way to try to give the film credence. Apparently the mumbo jumbo got to Merhige because the commentary on the film is among the worst I’ve ever heard. No, it’s not the usual fellatio of how brilliant everyone on a meager film was, but you hear an almost narcotized sounding Merhige clearly reading prepared notes for each scene of the film, detailing its imagery, power, etc. In essence, Merhige is auto-fellating himself, in a spooky voice he must believe passes as deep, and it’s laughable in some of the scenes that clearly fail. There is no spontaneity in the comments, no background on the film’s making nor the actors, and one senses that Merhige actually believes in the pseudoscience his work of fiction is based upon. He also relies on the worst and most pretentious clichés in describing some of his better scenes- repeatedly stating words like madness, abyss, black hole, nothingness, instinct, and even worse attempts at being ‘poetic’.

  This film is about on par with the flawed but daring Shadow Of The Vampire, but Merhige needs to take on more realistic and adult projects, to flex his directorial chops, lest (especially with his initialized ‘first’ name) he merely ends up the B film version of M. Night Shyamalan. That director’s bad enough, do we really need a shadow of him?

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