Suspect Zero is trying so hard to be deliberately stylish that it forgets there's an interesting premise underneath all that vanity. As a whole, it fails to transcend serial killer vs. cop thrillers that have come before it.
Dallas FBI Agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart) ignored extradition procedures that caused serial killer Raymond Starkey to walk--and landed the detective a fat demotion to a remote branch of the agency in Albuquerque. But before he even gets a chance to settle in his new digs, Mackelway is called to investigate the nearby murder of traveling salesman Harold Speck, whose body was found with one eyelid sliced off. On top of his face rests a sheet of paper with a red circle and a line drawn through it--the telltale mark of a serial killer. When the next victim turns out to be Starkey, the serial killer who once eluded Mackelway, the agent realizes this is not a textbook case. As he delves deeper into the investigation, he discovers the victims in this murderous spree have something in common: They have all committed manslaughter themselves. With the help of his partner Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss), Mackelway connects Benjamin O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley) to the crimes, a loner who seems to be taunting the agents to find him, as well as marauding serial killers who have managed to evade authorities. O'Ryan, it turns out, was one of five subjects in a secret government project dubbed ''remote viewing,'' which trained FBI agents to see distant locations using clairvoyance. What Mackelway has to figure out is whether O'Ryan is an antihero ridding the world of dangerous criminals, or a cold-blooded killing machine.
Ever heard the saying, ''Keep it simple, stupid''? The makers of Suspect Zero sure haven't. The film, which boasts a surprisingly impressive roster including Kingsley, Eckhart and Moss, benefits from strong and touching performances from all its cast members but fails to successfully exploit them. Veteran thesp Kingsley demonstrates an impressive range here as O'Ryan, a gray character who is both wickedly sinister and neurotically compassionate. Not many actors have the ability to make moviegoers empathize with a ruthless, bloody killer, but Kingsley does and he does it faithfully, despite the lousy script that turns his potentially fascinating character into a cliché. Eckhart, who plays the film's main character and protagonist Mackelway, churns out a decent performance as the disgruntled agent, but the role is too paint-by-numbers. Like most cinematic tough cops before him, Mackelway breaks the rules to apprehend the bad guys and is so rugged that he chomps aspirin like Tic-Tacs. There is not a glimmer of originality in the character, much like Moss's Kulok. Predictably, Kulok and Mackelway have a tangled romantic past, and although there is some chemistry between the two actors, it isn't really needed in the story. Their liaison is just one of too many distracting sub-plots.
Director Elias Merhige, who four years ago helmed the brilliant supernatural thriller Shadow of the Vampire, carries his artistic vision to a contemporary setting here, but in doing so loses some of the mystical elements that made his horror feature so unique. Merhige gives us dark and sinister sequences similar in style to Vampire, but in a modern setting they come across as derivative of director David Fincher's 1995 crime thriller Seven. In fact, it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons between the two. In Suspect Zero, for example, Mackelway enters a basement dwelling without working electricity so that the only thing discernible to the audience is spotlighted by the agent's flashlight--it's extremely similar to an early scene from Seven. On the surface, the themes are also comparable: Both films involve an antagonist playing cat-and-mouse games with a particular authority figure. What is different is Suspect scribes Zak Penn and Billy Ray's very distinctive slant with the whole remote viewing phenomenon. But unfortunately, the angle becomes a casualty of Merhige's overzealous desire to make this film a visual tour de force.
Suspect Zero is based on an intriguing concept, but director Elias Merhige is so preoccupied making an observably stylized film that he forgets about what is suppose to be the driving force behind the vision.