Movie review: 'Suspect Zero'

2-1/2 stars (out of 4)

"Suspect Zero" is a post-modern serial killer thriller. And it's so drenched in deviant style and cinematic trickery that its peculiar story--a psychological mystery where a killer wreaking mysterious havoc is apparently pursued by an obsessed FBI agent--almost becomes overwhelmed.

Maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe the movie should be overwhelmed by its own style. The script isn't really good enough to worry about whether it's being over-directed; in fact, E. Elias Merhige's ("Shadow of the Vampire") over-direction is one of the best things about this movie--along with Ben Kingsley's grimly unstoppable killer-of-killers, Benjamin O'Ryan. As we watch O'Ryan at his murderous work or taunting on-the-edge FBI agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), a certain grim inevitability begins to set in.

"Suspect Zero" was written by Zak Penn ("X-Men 2") and Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass"), and you can almost tell that the writing is by people who've triumphed in the pro movie world, while the direction is by an outsider. It's predictable but out of joint: a menage of psycho murder sprees and psychic second sight visions, taking place on highways under the boiling New Mexico sun, in disheveled houses and a barren FBI office. Almost every character is crazy, institutionalized, a killer or a cop--some falling into more than one category.

Not surprisingly, the movie has a real off-kilter feel. It begins in a setting out of "The Twilight Zone," one of those near-empty little night diners populated by cryptic, menacing travelers. There, we watch O'Ryan tease and kill an unsavory-looking salesman Harold Speck (Kevin Chamberlin). Then we watch more murders interspersed with an introduction to disgraced agent Thomas Mackelway, who violated a killer's rights and got himself reassigned to the sticks.

While O'Ryan continues on his bloody way, he drops hints to Mackelway by sending him faxes and little sinister charcoal drawings. Mackelway has an ally, fellow agent and ex-lover Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss), and an antagonistic boss, and he often seems in the grip of nightmare. Like some of the '40s-'50s film noir cops on whom he's probably based, like Dana Andrews in "Laura" or "Where the Sidewalk Ends," he's groping his way through a fog of clues.

By the end of the film, where we seem to be heading toward one surprise ending and get another (less satisfying) one instead, the movie has become all bad dream.

Merhige shock-cuts, filters and floats us away from any sense of reality. Though it's not hard to follow, it's a creepy, disorienting experience and it often seems to mean something different from what we're grasping, as if it were in code. Still, though it's not particularly pleasant, you can tell it took talent to make it.

Kingsley, as he's shown in "Sexy Beast," can be a great villain; he can twist and hammer that vulnerability, wisdom and sensitivity he puts into characters like Stern or Gandhi, and flip-flop into psychotic rage.

He's mesmerizing here, even though the role is so blatantly gimmicky: a psychic murder prognosticator who overdosed on crime and is running amok from the first scene. But Kingsley can always give us radiant intellect, even when it's bent, and Eckhart can always convey that all-American blankness and nervousness that suggests a jock on the make or run. With Mackelway, he keeps suggesting hidden danger, levels we can never quite see.

Merhige, who directed the weirder-than-weird 1991 silent film "Begotten" and the 1999 indie critical hit "Shadow of the Vampire"--a fictional bio-drama about the making of F W. Murnau's "Nosferatu"--is a director, like Guy Maddin or Darren Aronovsky, who projects an almost defiantly non-mainstream view of film. He's an in-your-face visionary.

And "Suspect Zero" shows what happens when a true underground sensibility gets hold of classy, shallow hack material and expensive actors, directing the sort of script and package that impresses studio green-lighters. The results aren't necessarily satisfying, but, despite a conventional resolution, they are different. Isn't it a bad sign, though, that he seemed to be a more interesting filmmaker when we couldn't quite understand what he was saying?

"Suspect Zero"

Directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Zak Penn, Billy Ray; photographed by Michael Chapman; edited by John Gilroy, Robert K. Lambert; production designed by Ida Random; music by Clint Mansell; produced by Paula Wagner, Merhige, Gaye Hirsch. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (for violent content, language and some nudity).

Thomas Mackelway - Aaron Eckhart
Benjamin O'Ryan - Ben Kingsley
Fran Kulok - Carrie-Anne Moss
Rick Charleton - Harry Lennix
Harold Speck - Keith Chamberlin
Raymond Starkey - Keith Campbell

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