Less Than Zero

For those disposed to pay close attention to movie credits, the ones attached to the new thriller Suspect Zeroshould spark interest. For starters, the director is E. Elias Merhige, whose way-underground 1991 debut feature, Begotten, counted both Susan Sontag and Marilyn Manson (whose 1996 music video Anti-Christ Superstar Merhige went on to direct) among its admirers, and who, in 2000, released the fiendishly clever Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional account of the making of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. The screenwriters are Billy Ray, who wrote and directed last fall's superb Shattered Glass, and Zak Penn, a veteran Hollywood scribe (Last Action Hero, X-Men 2) whose own enterprising directorial debut, Incident at Loch Ness, opens next month. Then there is the fact that Suspect Zero is “A C/W Production,” the “C” standing for Cruise, as in Tom. Yet it was filmed more than two years ago and is only now opening, cast off amid those late-summer doldrums that regularly carry unloved big-studio movies to their final resting places.

I would like nothing more than to report that Suspect Zero counters conventional wisdom and is, in fact, a hitherto undiscovered gem. No such luck. Despite the impressive credentials, it is one of those agonizingly routine police procedurals in which a cop who's fallen from favor finds himself taunted by a much smarter serial killer and following a trail of clues that inevitably lead to a grimy apartment wherein one needs a flashlight in order to see past one's nose. (What beef do serial killers have with the electric company, anyway?) The kink this time around, lest we suspect we've accidentally stumbled into an encore screening of Taking Lives, is that the cop is an FBI agent (Aaron Eckhart) relocated from Dallas to Albuquerque, and the killer is no ordinary psycho but one who targets other serial killers as his prey. Furthermore, this bloodlusty Avenging Angel, played by Ben Kingsley with a physical rigidity that suggests hinged steel rods in place of bone and sinew, may himself be a former FBI agent, trained by the bureau in the psychic art of “remote viewing.”

Conspiracy-minded readers will remember that “remote viewing” refers to a long-rumored government intelligence program in which “viewers” in one location envision events supposedly happening at some other location. As was finally revealed in the mid-'90s, the CIA actually did spend upward of $20 million, over a period of two decades, on the development of such a program (known as Project Stargate), only to conclude that the funds might just as well have been spent on Ouija boards and tarot cards. As a movie subject, remote viewing feels similarly trite. After all, there have already been Manhunter and Seven to show us, without resorting to paranormal hooey, how the minds of criminal and pursuer may grow to resemble each other. And there has been Charlie Kaufman to take us on cranial roller-coaster rides endlessly more twisty and terrifying than those experienced by Kingsley's Benjamin O'Ryan. So what's the point? When O'Ryan, searching for his next victim, goes into his remote-viewing trance, the images he sees—sometimes appearing in blotchy infrared, other times in grainy black-and-white—are supposed to be slowly driving him mad. For the most part, they're no more disconcerting than the helmet-cam shots on display during the average NFL Sunday.

What is disconcerting is that while Suspect Zero offers occasional reminders of Merhige's instinctive knack for moving pictures—near the end, there's an arrestingly creepy depiction of a child's disappearance among billowing laundry—and a few other fleeting pleasures, such as Robert Towne's amusing cameo as O'Ryan's former criminology professor, there are more frequent reminders of the dispiriting lengths to which a talented director must sometimes go in order to continue working. (In its way, Suspect Zero is more depressing than the ordinary bad movie, because you can actually sense Merhige's own distress with the lifeless material and his frustration at trying to make something worthwhile out of it.) If one is to take his first two features as any indication, Merhige's temperament—that of a restless artist—will only occasionally find a fit among the projects Hollywood has to offer. Yet, two features per decade is no way to keep a career going, and so sometimes one must compromise by agreeing to make a film that is as null and void as its title suggests.

Suspect Zero was directed by E. Elias Merhige; written by Zak Penn and Billy Ray, from a story by Penn; produced by Paula Wagner, Merhige and Gaye Hirsch; and stars Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley and Carrie-Anne Moss. Now playing countywide.

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