Suspect Zero opens with a flurry of fancy footwork: The camera tracks through a garbage dump to close in on a single grimy milk carton and quizzically regard the image of a missing child as it is spattered clean by the rain. Soon after, however, the movie slips on the banana peel of exaggerated fear factor, falling facedown with the introduction of an über-creep serial killer (Ben Kingsley) grimly stalking some hapless prey.
Kingsley is half of the thriller equation. He is involved in a complicated psycho-rondo with a volatile FBI agent (Aaron Eckhart). The latter has been recently reassigned from Dallas to Albuquerque after an embarrassing Dirty Harry–like lapse, along with his equally grim-faced, erstwhile partner (Carrie-Anne Moss). A soggy matchbook would light up faster than Eckhart and Moss. None of the principals is remotely likable—although Kingsley does appear to enjoy swanning around the great Southwest like a low-rent Anthony Hopkins. The Kingsley character is largely delusional, while Eckhart’s is subject to mysterious red alerts and shamanic dreams. “I think we’ve got an obsessive-compulsive here,” he muses upon penetrating Kingsley’s lair, a nightmare’s nest of scribbled notes, clippings, and psychotic doodles, presided over by a big, spooky mask.
The veil of illusion briefly parts when Eckhart rips away some wallpaper to uncover the monster mural left for him to find by Kingsley’s mad genius. Suspect Zero, directed by E. Elias Merhige from a script by Zak Penn and Billy Ray, is a thriller of signs, portents, and bullshit in which the murders—and especially the artfully mutilated corpses—are elaborate clues, a kind of mystical message from the perp to the cop. It’s a tradition that has its origins in the classic Jorge Luis Borges story “Death and the Compass,” but is, in this case, more likely derived from David Fincher’s Se7en, the recipe spiced with a bit of X Files voodoo: FBI equals ESP.
Merhige, the avant-garde filmmaker turned music video auteur who made the surprisingly effective Nosferatu gloss Shadow of the Vampire (2000), shows his facility as a hack. (He’s listed in the credits as one of nine producers.) Conceived as a sort of feature-length Marilyn Manson video, Suspect Zero has plenty of style, however incoherent and overwrought. The hyperactive montage is stocked with interpolated grainy images. The faster the cutting, the slower the pace. The soundtrack is filled with strange gibbering—as though someone were muttering to himself while blowing smoke rings through the canyons of your mind.