Suspect Zero

(2004) ** R
100 min. Paramount Pictures. Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss, Harry J. Lennix, Kevin Chamberlin.

Director E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire) is, if you'll pardon the pun, a cut above the usual Hollywood hack. Regardless, his new film, Suspect Zero, puts him at war with his own shaky material. This umpteenth serial-killer thriller plays like a David Lynch movie thwarted by studio-mandated rewrites and the micro-management of meddling executives hoping for another Se7en but willing to settle for another Taking Lives. With photography by Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) and a possibly self-parodic performance by Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley, Merhige ends up with a freaky failure that's difficult to entirely dismiss.

Aaron Eckhart plays FBI agent Tom Mackelway, who—following a colossal procedural screw-up—finds himself reassigned to the remote desert vistas of Albuquerque. Just as a series of murders finds its way to his new desk, the Mackelway begins to receive creepy faxes from a possibly unhinged man named Benjamin O'Ryan (Kingsley). The irritated O'Ryan, who may be devil or angel, claims to be a sort of human GPS system trained and abandoned in an FBI psy-ops program. Whatever he is, O'Ryan leaves a trail of corpses marked by bloody etchings and lidless eyes, supposed clues to ensure the FBI is "seeing" what he's doing. Mackelway's literal and figurative headaches are exacerbated by the appearance of fellow agent Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss), his contentious ex.

Moss's part is so incidental to the plot that one can only assume she's littering the cutting-room floor. The central conceit of "remote viewing" is pretty hard to swallow in a context of otherwise mechanical thriller tropes, and that conceit is all the script (credited to Zak Penn and Billy Ray) has going for it. Still, try telling that to Kingsley, who makes a feast of exchanges like this one: "[Meek victim:] You're sick. [O'Ryan:] It's a matter of opinion." Why should Anthony Hopkins have all the fun? Slow and often arrhythmic, Suspect Zero winds up ambitious but decidedly unsatisfying.

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