Suspect Zero

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What is essential to a quality mass market thriller? A solid plot that is credible–it seems like it really could happen this way. Or, in some cases, like sci fi thrillers, the film makes the viewer believe it could happen, even in a clearly imaginary world. There should be a few unexpected twists, but never at the cost of gaping holes or inconsistencies in the plot. Ideally, there should be a character or two built in more depth than mere pawns advancing a story line. And, of course, the story must be told suspensefully, generating fearful anticipation of what will happen next, the very essence of the "thrill" in thriller.

None of the above are present in Suspect Zero, the new release from director E. Elias Merhige, whose earlier effort, Shadow of the Vampire, won admiration in these pages. Why Merhige chose to take on the pedestrian screenplay by Zak Penn (X-2, Behind Enemy Lines), is a mystery in itself. The underlying gimmick (and it is a gimmick) won’t be revealed here, but it’s not at all a convincing concept on which to build a film. And, rather than any genuine suspense being generated, this central gimmick is telescoped fairly early on.

There are only two characters worth noting. (Carrie-Anne Moss, as an FBI agent,is given star billing, but she has less to do than the mutilated corpses.) Aaron Eckhart (Paycheck, Possession) is a troubled FBI agent who gets transferred to Albuquerque, a demotion in anybody’s book. Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog, Sexy Beast) is the villain, made out from the start to be quite mad and suspected of being a serial killer. It’s a cat and mouse game between the two, but, in the end the game raises more questions about why it was being played in the first place, if, by that time you care enough to think about it. Eckhard goes about looking for the evidence, breaking the rules (as he has in the past) in his emotionally desperate need to solve this case. The clues are predictable and repetitious; there’s little sense of mystery.

Sir Ben, of course, is one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, so the only question here is why he took on such a hokey role in the first place. (Surely, he doesn’t have to worry about the rent money.) He’s all intensity–veins bulging out on his sweaty face, fingers endlessly tapping to be sure it’s clear he is on the edge. But there’s no substance to the underlying character–he’s a mere conduit for the gimmick–and you never for a moment know enough about what makes him tick to care about him one way or another.

Although this has been touted as a breakthrough film for Eckhart, he’s been getting by on his good looks for too long now and he has enough films on record to make it clear that he offers little in the way of insight or psychological integrity to his characters. He’s become a real Johnny-One-Note with the emotional availability of a Sphinx.

There’s nothing wrong with the look of the film. Merhige uses some grainy looking effects and color filters for memory sequences. He keeps an edgy energy going, but the story is so essentially static there is no forward momentum. It’s a movie on a treadmill–lots of energy going nowhere at all. Even the obligatory chase scene doesn’t go anywhere. The effective score by Clint Mansell tries valiantly to inject eeriness into the essentially banal goings on.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.