'Suspect Zero'

It's 4 a.m. on a rainy night at the All-American Diner, on a deserted road outside Gallup, N.M. A bald, paunchy, amiable-looking restaurant-supplies salesman (Kevin Chamberlin) is seated by a window, having a cup of coffee and reading a fishing magazine. He is jolted by the sudden appearance of an intense, sinister stranger (Ben Kingsley) who sits down opposite him and thrusts at him a clutch of drawings of mutilated corpses. Soon the salesman is rushing off to his car — but the stranger is already sitting in his back seat....

This is the scary, economically staged and potently atmospheric start of E. Elias Merhige's stunningly original thriller "Suspect Zero." The film has the dark, sly brilliance of Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" (2000), in which he amusingly suggested that Max Schreck, the cadaverous star of F.W. Murnau's silent classic "Nosferatu," might really be a vampire, and it has the controlled ferocity and startling visual panache of Merhige's 1991 student film "Begotten," a brutal allegory of the Creation with an extremely harsh view of human existence.

Very soon it's clear that a serial killer is on a rampage in the Southwest, and FBI agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), a hotshot who has just suffered a professional setback and has been shifted from Dallas to Albuquerque as punishment, is swiftly in pursuit. The rampage escalates to the extent that his wary, no-nonsense former Dallas partner Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss) is sent to Albuquerque to back him up.

Zak Penn and Billy Ray's bold screenplay is perfect for Merhige's convoluted sensibility, and "Suspect Zero" is so ingenious that the less revealed about the plot's devilish unraveling, the better. Merhige is a true visionary with an easy and awesome command of his medium. In this instance he explores a tormented human mind as an infernal machine, operating with the relentless precision of the Cronos device in Guillermo del Toro's clever horror movie "Cronos." Whereas the Cronos device could grant eternal life, the mind Merhige enters is programmed only to kill. By the time "Suspect Zero" is over, Merhige has powerfully suggested that the human capacity for death and destruction — for pure, unrelenting evil — is so limitless and unending that anyone attempting to comprehend it fully risks descending into madness. "Suspect Zero" is an apt metaphor for the times.

Superbly shot by the masterly Michael Chapman, "Suspect Zero" is a film of off-the-beaten-track roadside locales, small towns and cities, old buildings with terrible secrets in dark attics and dank basements. It is loaded with diabolical diagrams, symbols and images that become part of Merhige's exploration between the relentlessly systematic and the seemingly random in human behavior. It is a film rich in intimations — of unspeakable horrors completed in the viewer's imagination and of experimental government programs gone amok.

For all its inspired and idiosyncratic twists and turns, "Suspect Zero" unfolds with refreshing clarity within a genre plot. Eckhart is a classically handsome leading man, and Moss is a typical strong, take-charge modern heroine. Their Mackelway and Kulok may or may not have had some personal involvement in the past, but in either case Merhige is too smart to go there and plunges into his nonstop nightmarish adventure. At first it looks as if no more will be demanded of Eckhart than to be the stalwart good guy in pursuit of the deranged genius bad guy, but Merhige demands of him the complexity and anguish he does of Kingsley, whose O'Ryan may not be quite what he seems and may even prove a tragic figure.

As "Suspect Zero" unfolds it reveals the contagiousness of madness, the potential interchangeableness of hero and villain — and, beyond that, paradoxical notions as to who the villains may actually be, not just in this movie but in life. Merhige understands how exciting going to the edge of credibility can be without falling off, and he has the bravura talent and imagination needed to pull off the sheer, hurtling audacity of "Suspect Zero."

'Suspect Zero'

MPAA rating: Rated R for violent content, language and some nudity

Times guidelines: Unsuitable for children

Aaron Eckhart...Thomas Mackelway

Ben Kingsley...Benjamin O'Ryan

Carrie-Anne Moss...Fran Kulok

Harry Lennix...Rick Charleton

Kevin Chamberlin...Harold Speck

A Paramount Pictures presentation in association with Intermedia Films and Lakeshore Entertainment of a C/W production. Director E. Elias Merhige. Producers Paula Wagner, E. Elias Merhige, Gaye Hirsch. Executive producers Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi. Screenplay by Zak Penn and Billy Ray; from a story by Penn. Cinematographer Michael Chapman. Editors John Gilroy and Robert K. Lambert. Music Clint Mansell. Costumes Mary Claire Hannan. Costume co-designer Lizz Wolfe. Production designer Ida Random. Art director Guy Barnes. Set decorator Wendy Barnes. Set designer Jim Oberlander. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.In general release.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times