Friday, December 7, 2007

reVIEW (32)

I only recently got to see the amusing faux documentary Incident at Loch Ness on cable, which got me some good looks at one Gabriel Beristain (cinematographer on Guillermo Del Toro’s Blade II and David S. Goyer’s The Invisible, reviewed elsewhere here at the Iguana) and one Zak Penn (who directed Incident). Since Penn co-wrote Suspect Zero, I thought, “Why not?”

A few years back, E. Elias Merhige gave us Shadow of the Vampire, the canny exploration of creativity set against the backdrop of the filming of the classic German silent film Nosferatu. Now, Merhige returns with Suspect Zero.

“A 50 foot shark. Ever see one?”
“Doesn’t mean there aren’t any.”

FBI Special Agent Tom Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart) has been relegated to the Albuquerque field office after a six-month psych evaluation following a much-publicized breach of Bureau protocol. As it turns out, Mackelway has become the obsession of Benjamin O’Ryan (Sir Ben Kingsley), a man who claims to be a former FBI agent, and is apparently a remote viewer, a psychic individual able to “see” things happening in distant locations. Shortly into the film, Mackelway becomes embroiled in the investigation of a man murdered by O’Ryan, a man whose eyelids have been sliced off.

If you’re beginning to get the impression that Suspect Zero is a grisly, disturbing piece of film, well, you’re partially right. Though certainly nowhere near as grisly and sordid as Seven was, Zero is a subtly disturbing exercise in the building of mood. With masterful editing and the use of eerie audio tracks and an eclectic and interesting musical score, Merhige manages to construct a movie that keeps itself afloat by virtue of atmosphere.

“Okay, but a serial killer, by definition, is condemned to repetition, isn’t he? I mean, isn’t that what he’s all about?”

Where Zero falters however, is its script (by Billy Ray and Zak Penn), which doesn’t allow itself to build any momentum to carry us forward. The fact that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of urgency to solving the case doesn’t help matters much either. Unlike The Silence of the Lambs or The Cell, where we are given a specific victim in current jeopardy to identify with, the victims in Suspect Zero are too much of ciphers for the audience to care about, except in the most abstract of ways.
Though not as handicapped as Seven is when stripped of its technique, Zero nonetheless lacks a certain something to make it a film of substance. Or perhaps, there is a little too much there to make it a tight, coherent piece. Much like the frantic and cluttered writing and art of O’Ryan, one detects a certain busy-ness of plot elements and details that only serve to obscure the merits of what could have been an excellent film.

Fortunately, we have Eckhart and Sir Kingsley to keep us occupied. Eckhart, with his past work with Neil LaBute (In The Company of Men, Possession), has proven to be an engaging performer, and Sir Kingsley brings both a borderline psychotic intensity and world-weary humanity to O’Ryan that is a privilege to watch. Given that, it’s sad that Carrie-Anne Moss, who proved in Memento that she can do more than just fancy martial arts on wireworks, isn’t given much to do by the script.

And once again, the script is the culprit, which I believe is the case with practically all the post-Silence of the Lambs serial killer thrillers, including its sequel Hannibal, and its prequel, Red Dragon. Not even Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter could save Copycat, and as I alluded to earlier, bereft of David Fincher’s moody technique, Seven’s script isn’t much to write home about either.

“We saw things men shouldn’t see. Agony. Torture. Evil.”

In trying, among other things, to posit a new sort of serial killer for the new millennium, the metaphorical “50 foot shark,” which may exist despite not having been seen by mortal eyes, Suspect Zero only succeeds in giving us a muddied view of a grab bag of ideas that never quite comes together into a cohesive whole. Perhaps if Ray and Penn had trimmed down some of the story’s minutiae, focused less on ideas and more on the story’s rhythm, Suspect Zero could have been the film it clearly wanted to be. As it is, though it isn’t a total waste of time, it also isn’t an entirely satisfying cinema experience.

Parting shot: Eckhart, who was also great in Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking, will be seen in next year’s The Dark Knight, as D.A. Harvey Dent, a.k.a. The Man Who Will Be Two-Face.

(Suspect Zero OS courtesy of; DVD cover art courtesy of

(The above review began life under the title, “A View To A Kill.”)

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