Posted: 08/29/2004


Suspect Zero


by Del Harvey

A mysterious serial killer is hunting other serial killers—and one FBI agent suspects there may be more to the vigilante than they imagine.

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When Dallas FBI Agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart - Paycheck, The Pledge) goes “off the reservation” and violates serial killer Raymond Starkey’s civil rights during an unorthodox arrest, Starkey goes free and Mackelway is demoted to a remote branch of the agency in Albuquerque. On his first day on the job, Mackelway investigates the murder of traveling salesman Harold Speck, which turns out to be the first of three seemingly random killings. But soon thereafter the investigation reveals these three may not have been random at all; as the last to die is Mackelway’s nemesis, Raymond Starkey.

The F.B.I. sends his old partner and love interest Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss - The Matrix, Memento) to work with him as he gets deeper and deeper into the investigation, which seems to consume Mackelway. But this is nothing Kulok hasn’t seen before. In fact, she emerges as anchor to his brilliance as hunter of serial killers and, for the most part, supports his unorthodox theories.

However, when Mackelway starts hypothesizing that the killer of killers they are tracking must be a former F.B.I. agent himself, even Kulok has a difficult time supporting him in front of his superior Rich Charleton (Harry Lennix - Ray, Barbershop 2). What is especially hard for Kulok and Charleton to swallow is that several hundred murders across the lower 48 could have been committed by one man, and that supposed former F.B.I. agent Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley - Sexy Beast, House of Sand and Fog) is actually hunting this fiend.

Suspect Zero succeeds for several reasons, not the least of which is that director E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire, Begotten) leaves much of the gore and disturbance to our imaginations. He succeeds in doing this by using David Fincher-like Gothic imagery in both his settings and in the form of sketches drawn by the O’Ryan character during his psychic episodes in tracing the actions of his serial killer prey. Merhige also involved several law enforcement professionals in the research and production, calling upon their expertise to create much more realistic impressions of the F.B.I. and their pursuit of multiple killers.

There are moments in this story when the filmmakers rely heavily upon our experience with other suspense films to shape our response to a character’s actions. Such is the case when Mackelway becomes obsessed with the hunt for O’Ryan. The filmmakers know that we have seen any dozen ways that this type of story can unravel and, instead of taking us inside Mackelway’s psychotic obsession with saving lives and killing monsters, they simply allow the story to unravel, which works because they spent the first five minutes accurately setting up Echart’s Mackelway character.

Similarly, there is a moment at the beginning of the film where O’Ryan seems to materialize out of thin air behind a serial killer he’s been tracking. Some ten minutes later there is an explanation for this, and a lost gap in time is explained; but it is done quickly and you have to pay attention in order to catch it. I found all of this film to be that demanding of the viewer, and simultaneously was refreshed by this realization. There are too many suspense films which do not know how to explain some basic premises in shorthand by relying upon the viewer’s unconscious history of all those popular films which have come before. By relying upon the standard, Merhige and his first-rate cast and crew were able to keep the tension in the storyline taut throughout and thus riveting us to our seats.

Suspect Zero works on many levels. If you enjoy a good thrill, love a good suspense film, then I give Suspect Zero the highest recommendation.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.

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