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Suspect Zero

It's impossible to get excited about E. Elias Merhige's thoughtful serial killer film Suspect Zero (2004), but it's difficult to completely trash it, either. The script, by Zak Penn and Shattered Glass director Billy Ray, is solid in the way a metal shed at Home Depot is — sturdy and well-crafted, but architecturally dull. Penn's background as a writer-for-hire includes such wildly diverse contracts as Inspector Gadget, Behind Enemy Lines and PCU — he's also writer/director of the fascinating postmodern Herzog documentary Incident at Loch Ness, all of which shows that the fellow has range, if nothing else. With Suspect Zero, he and Ray construct a story with an inspired premise — a perhaps-psychically gifted FBI agent (Aaron Eckhart) is being fed clues by an equally gifted serial killer (Ben Kingsley) who's slaughtering other serial killers — and take it precisely nowhere. Agent Mackelway (Eckhart) has been banished to the New Mexico branch office after botching a previous investigation through the tried-and-true "violent loose cannon" routine that afflicts so many members of Hollywood law enforcement. His first day on the new job, he starts getting faxes and notes from an enigmatic fellow (Kingsley) who may or may not have once been an FBI agent himself — of course, he could just be completely whacked out of his mind, since he's also leaving a trail of slashed-up corpses with their eyelids sliced off. As Mackelway looks for the source of the bodies and the messages, he finds that his prey is tracking a killer of his own — "Suspect Zero," a serial killer who, unlike most, kills according to no discernible pattern, making him virtually impossible to capture. Meanwhile, the Bureau sends Mackelway's old partner — who was also, of course, his lover — out to New Mexico to advise and help him. Played by Carrie Ann Moss, this completely unwritten character exists for no purpose other than to offer an expositional sounding board and to call out "Tom! Where are you going?" as Mackelway runs off in classic movie-FBI-guy fashion to confront the bad guy all by himself without any backup. Merhige, who directed the superb, wickedly funny 2001 black comedy/thriller Shadow of the Vampire, is far more talented than is needed for Suspect Zero's flaccid script — thusly, the film comes close to fooling us now and then into thinking it's actually good, with beautifully structured scenes that create tension where, really, there isn't any, and so dripping with great cinematic tricks 'n' treats that the entire endeavor feels more like a European art film than the slick thriller it's supposed to be. Basically, this is what happens when a talented, experimental director is matched with good actors and hack writing — a release that perfectly illustrates that, at its foundation, a movie has to start with a good script. If it doesn't, then none of the bells, whistles, frosting, and frippery that are piled on afterwards will transform it into a truly good piece of cinema.

*          *          *

Paramount's DVD release of Suspect Zero offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) The color saturation is excellent, as is the contrast — there's a lot of darkness here, as well as scenes seen though the killer's "psychic eye" with oddly skewed colors and changes in types of lenses and perspectives — again, visually at least, this is a terrific film, and the presentation here does all of that work proud. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English or French, with optional English or Spanish subtitles) is equally good. Extras include an exceptionally glum, tedious commentary track by director Merhige, which is technically informative but joyless and impersonal — frankly, it sounds like he was forced to do it at gunpoint. Also on board is a four-part "making-of" featurette (30 min.) that, interestingly, goes into a lot of detail about the psychic "remote viewing" on which the plot hinges. There's also an additional segment on remote viewing with Merhige (11 min.), an alternate ending that would have made a terrific coda, the film's Internet trailer, and trailers for other Paramount releases. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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