Somewhere deep down in the dark heart of director E. Elias Merighe’s newest offering, “Suspect Zero,” there is a film that teases its audience with a bit of misdirection and then offers a glimpse into an inner resource that each one of us may have the potential to tap into. If only those ideas could have been presented without the constraints of the too-familiar serial killer movie plot outline.
It is a formula that movie fans know well by this point. In the early nineties, the huge box office and Oscar success of “The Silence of the Lambs” (which swept all five major categories) prompted a whole slew of serial killer flicks in Hollywood. But for every “Silence,” there was a “Kiss the Girls.” And for every “Seven,” there was a “Copycat.” Literally. Soon the twisted world of the psychopath was becoming as predictable as seeing Chevy Chase in yet another “Vacation” film.
One of the early templates for serial killer profilers in popular fiction was “Red Dragon,” Thomas Harris’ first novel in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy. FBI agent Will Graham catches murderers by putting himself in their mindspace. It’s not a pretty place to spend time in, and his personal and family life suffered greatly for it. In “Suspect Zero,” Aaron Eckhart plays Thomas Mackelway, an agent who also immerses himself in the life of those he wishes to apprehend.
Mackelway’s obsession manifests itself in a violent arrest that violates a killer’s civil rights, and the killer goes free, leading to Mackelway’s public humiliation. Demoted to the Albuquerque office, he is soon being taunted and tormented by a seemingly egomaniacal serial murderer, just like Brad Pitt in “Seven.” The man begins sending him faxes of victims and toying with him on the telephone. In a move straight out of “Dark City” and so many other films involving psychos, Mackelway, hot on the trail of his suspect, finds that his drifter carries a fixated passion for the number zero, scrawling it thousands of times on the walls of his room at a halfway house.
Things get a little more interesting when the killer who slipped through the legal cracks turns up murdered. A mysterious loner named Benjamin O’Ryan, played by Ben Kingsley comes into clearer focus then. He’s an imposing figure, as he was so effectively in “Sexy Beast.” Mackelway’s investigation leads him to O’Ryan, who he discovers was part of a secret government program that trained agents to hone and develop their natural skills of perception. Remote viewing, as it is called, actually occurred in the 70s, and supposedly helped correctly identify weapons factories in Africa and described Chinese bomb tests.
Why then, is it so difficult to really get involved in the plot of “Suspect Zero”? Merighe (“Shadow of the Vampire”) has a dynamic visual style, keeping the film rooted in disturbing imagery. When it comes to “Suspect Zero’s” more complicated themes, though, he has a hard time escaping the confines of the genre. The opening scene involving a salesman being rudely interrupted during his 4 a.m. cup of coffee unfolds with an intriguing creepiness. But it has an all-too-familiar wrap-up that smacks of laziness. You can’t subvert the genre by having a killer pop up “unexpectedly” yet again in the back seat of a car, when you’ve just seen in him seconds before, in another location.
With the help of writer /director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), Merighe doctored the screenplay by Zak Penn and tailored it more towards psychological matters, adding among other things, the remote viewing concept. Maybe they should have thrown the script away and started something completely new.