Suspect Zero (2004)

JUNE 11, 2009


What’s with all the serial killer movies lately? I try to spread the genres out a bit, and while some (Slashers and Supernatural) obviously come up more than others (Puppets), it’s still rare to have four films from a single genre over the span of less than 2 weeks. At any rate, Suspect Zero is probably the best of the lot, thanks to solid acting, a slightly unique version of the same old “law enforcement guy with troubled past becomes obsessed with finding a killer” plot, and, most importantly, a refreshing lack of dumb twists.

See, throughout the movie, we never actually see any of the killings occur. Ben Kingsley’s character is seemingly hunting other killers (keep in mind this pre-dates Dexter and keeps the dry humor out of it), but he does it all off-screen. He is now after another killer whose face we never see. So I put two and two together and figured that we weren’t seeing the killings because our FBI agent hero, Aaron Eckhart, was one of the killers (he even throws in a reference to split personalities early on, but that turns out to be a red herring). But that’s not the case, thankfully, and the killer turns out to be some random guy.

And that’s fine, because the movie is really about “remote viewing”, in which someone who is not at the scene of a crime (or whatever) trances out and starts “seeing” specific details about the area. So, for example they write down like “Needle” “Cloudy” and “panhandling musician” and from that one could assume that the crime was occurring in Seattle. It’s a cool process, and according to the extra features, anyone can do it with some training. Cool.

There are a lot of little details I really appreciated too. For starters, our hero is an FBI agent, but he works a desk job (not even his own office!). So many movies with FBI agents make it seem like they just get to shoot and chase people 24/7, but we watch Eckhart fill out paperwork, investigate evidence from his desk, and make his own coffee. Also, whenever there is a newspaper clipping, the article actually makes sense and is relevant to the photo. A lot of movie prop photos just put a picture in and the article is gibberish or about a town hall meeting or something, but if you pause the movie and read the article, you actually get some backstory.

I also loved the art that Kingsley does during his remote viewing experiences. It looks a lot like the art of Ben Templesmith ("30 Days of Night"), particularly the final one of Eckhart’s character, which could easily be mistaken for line art from one of Templesmith’s "Wormwood" series. I even checked the credits to see if it WAS him, but I guess not.

Also, again, the hero is Aaron Eckhart. How can you not like this guy? There’s a reason his name is tossed around for the lead in Captain America: he’s an old fashioned movie star type (unfortunately, his leading role films tend to sink at the box office, including this one). And unlike a lot of his roles, he’s not cynical or anything like that, so it’s nice to see him play full on sympathetic for a change. Plus, he’s one of those guys who can’t be a follower; there’s a great bit where he goes on his first investigation in New Mexico (he’s been re-assigned there after bungling a case in Texas) and keeps getting put in his place by his superior officer and even a tow truck operator, but somehow manages to look like he’s in charge of them all anyway. That’s exactly what we need for Captain America. Kingsley also has some nice moments, such as a scene where a cop pulls him over. He gets a little hammy at times, but nothing compared to his Bloodrayne “performance”.

The only real problem with the movie, which kept it from being great, is the lack of real stakes or suspense. It would be cliché to put a family member in danger or whatever, but the end hinges on the rescue of a little boy. Yeah, this big studio movie with A list cast members MIGHT end with the death of a small child at the hands of a serial killer. And this is the only sort of chase scene in the movie, so it’s a bit of a downer. Not that Seven has to be the template for all serial killer films, but a scene halfway through with the killer trying (and succeeding) to escape from our heroes would have been beneficial.

Of course, once you turn on the audio commentary, you discover that it’s a wonder the film has any suspense at all. The director, one E. Elias Merhige, is clearly a pretentious windbag who wanted to make a movie about the mind and the essence of being and all this other horseshit. Those of you who want to hear about how things were shot, working with actors, etc, better steer clear, since he never even mentions a single person from the film (cast or crew) during the entire commentary. Instead, Merhige offers us “Again from his dream, he hears the echoes, the voice. The voice that drives him forward. Pictures of ancient traditions, rituals, the modern age. It screams, comes out, from that distant blackness.” Is this an audio commentary or an open mic night at some New York art school?

The rest of the extras are equally un-movie like, though at least they are interesting. We get about a half hour about some real remote viewers and the history of it all (government experiments factor in, unsurprisingly), and then 10 minutes where Merhige tries it himself, and actually (or is that allegedly) correctly finds the location he saw in his mind, not to mention comes off far better than he does on his commentary (i.e. I didn’t want to smack him during it). Even the deleted ending revolves around remote viewing, which makes it even more fascinating when you discover that this whole aspect of the movie was added in during script rewrites. Per this script review at AICN, it was originally a straight up procedural about an FBI agent hunting a killer of killers, with none of the remote viewing stuff.* I wouldn’t mind reading the original script myself. Not that I found the RV stuff really bothersome, but it definitely distracted away from the FBI/serial killer plot(s).

I just wish the DVD had a bit more honesty; the script had been around for years, got rewritten by everyone under the sun (including Ben Affleck!), was shot in 2002 but didn’t come out until 2004... that’s a lot of fascinating behind the scenes stuff, don’t you think? But it’s never even hinted at. I think putting all that stuff on there would actually give people a higher impression of the film. If you know how troubled the production was, you’d be amazed that the film was even coherent, let alone pretty good.

Speaking of the DVD, you may have noticed that this movie has two sources. That's because my disc was scratched and about ten minutes' worth were unplayable. Luckily, there's a new site called iReel that lets you stream movies for a nominal fee per flick (or you can pay a flat monthly rate), with hundreds of movies already available (including Suspect Zero) and more being added. And while I can't vouch for every single title, every one that I checked was NOT available for instant viewing on Netflix, making it even more enticing. While the presumed death of physical media terrifies me, I can't deny the fact that being able to watch whatever the hell I want at a whim is a pretty great advancement for mankind. The quality was quite good and scanning ahead worked even faster than Netflix (which needs to buffer for quite a while). I also dig the option to let you choose your high speed, which would minimize rebuffer times should your connection slow. Very cool. Definitely check it out if you're a fan of instant viewing.

Back to the movie though, if you’re like me, and have just watched a bunch of bad serial killer films, then Suspect Zero should help restore your faith in the sub-genre. It’s far from a slam dunk, but there’s enough originality and some terrific performances to enjoy, and it’s pretty short to boot. Hardly the worst use of your time.

What say you?

*I kind of like the irony of Moriarty writing this article about how adding a fantastical element to a script “ruined it”, seeing as how he was the one that added Hell monsters to the otherwise “real world” script for Carpenter’s Pro-life episode of Masters of Horror.

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  1. This may predate the Dexter novels, but it does not predate "A Philosophical Investigation" by Philip Kerr, which both it (and Dexter) owe quite a bit to.

  2. "What’s with all the serial killer movies lately? I try to spread the genres out a bit, and while some (Slashers and Supernatural) obviously come up more than others (Puppets), it’s still rare to have four films from a single genre over the span of less than 2 weeks."

    but this movie was released half a decade ago...

    i thought it was really good too.

    pro life was a lot better than i initially thought it was too.

  3. Although I liked this film, I wasn't pleased with the ending.

  4. I saw this when it first came out on DVD and remember really liking it (c-mon, use your words, "liking"?). Not perfect, but unique and well made, lets just say that I would paid to see it in the theater. What I do strongly remember was the DVD extra about the history of the use of remote viewing in the military and in the FBI, pretty interesting.

  5. I think 10 years ago Aaron Eckhart would have been perfect for Captain America. But he's too old now.

  6. I quite enjoyed this one. The director may be a pretentious douche bag but I'm glad that he's more interested in the storytelling aspects of the film than the technical.

    I, indeed love Aaron Eckhart. He's been consistently impressive in his roles. But I would say that I enjoyed him in In the Company of Men most of all. Have you seen that? It's not a horror movie but it's quite a bit more disturbing than most horror movies.


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