Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mini Review: Suspect Zero (2004)

Suspect Zero is the most disappointingly adequate movie I've ever seen. Its miserable scores on Metacritic and RottenTomatoes create no illusions that it's an overlooked gem, but I was sorely mistaken in assuming that the hostility and vicious snark was indicative of the epic failure requiring the full Video Updates treatment. It even has a place in infamy next to Larry the Cable Guy and Uwe Boll films in the Onion AV Club's Commentary Tracks of the Damned column.

The level of review bile contrasts sharply to the extraordinary promise once shown by the career of director E. Elias Merhige. Originally a pretentious art filmmaker, Merhige first emerged with his 1991 experimental feature, Begotten. Shot with the distinct texture of hyper-grainy, ultra high contrast reversal film, it tells a metaphysical horror tale of violence, resurrection, and suicidal gods. It's sadly difficult to get a hold of in a proper viewing format, (I'm stuck with a nigh-unwatchable bootleg, myself) but the striking imagery eventually landed its creator a shot at 'real' feature film making. The result was 2000's sublime Shadow of the Vampire, a dark comedy starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe as the director and 'real life' vampire behind the original Nosferatu.Suspect Zero would be Merhige's second and (so far) final studio film. In spite (or because) of a formidable ad campaign, the film hit theaters with an awkward clanking noise; like a broken alarm clock casually tossed into an empty meatlocker. It certainly didn't help that the film reeks powerfully of Se7en copycat syndrome, or that its 'twist' was given away on nearly every marketing material in a desperate attempt to cover the odor.

That twist is the use of 'remote viewing,' but it only counts as a twist if you haven't seen the trailer, official website, majority of reviews, Wikipedia page, or beginning of this sentence. Also you have to be too stupid to figure out the reason for all the sudden, artsy camera angles that Ben Kingsley keeps sketching in his seedy motel hideout.The main subject of this psychokinetic spying is disgraced FBI agent, Aaron Eckhart. With a small sampling of the Matrix films' supporting cast at his side, the future Harvey Dent slowly unravels a string of murders committed with the intent to get his specific attention. (I guess it takes more than creepy faxes to get an FBI agent's attention these days.) The clues eventually lead to Kingsley, who turns out to be a borderline psychotic veteran of the government's defunct psychic detectives program. He was trained to tune into the mental frequencies of killers, but snapped under the pressure and began hunting the perps down on his own.

None of this sounds particularly new or interesting, and it isn't. The cast is serviceable, the script is a bit of a mess, but the cinematography and direction keep the affair floating an inch or two above absolute mediocrity. It certainly doesn't deserve the heaping piles of scorn provided by mainstream film critics. (Personally, I believe their perspective is warped by this bizarre focus on "good" movies.)The main problem I have with Suspect Zero is in its treatment of the eponymous character. I understand that the spoiler free audience members are supposed to spend portions of the film wondering if Kingsley is the titular suspect, a theoretical serial killer that can never be caught because no pattern connects his murders, but the film never sets that particular red herring in stone. His slaughters have a clear pattern (killing killers) and he is never connected to the sinister black 16-wheeler menacing the film's scene transitions. To everyone outside the film itself Ben is clearly not SZ, so when Kingsley and Eckhart join forces to take him down at the end of the film, I had every reason to believe that he would be a total scary badass, possibly played by an A-list actor, with a cool monologue and a cooler death.It turns out he's just some guy with a trucking job and a bunch of obvious corpse mounds at his desert ranch. He gets neither lines nor a close-up, and does absolutely nothing except run away and get his head smashed in. I know the drama is supposed to be between the two tortured leads, but since no one actually gives a flying fuck at this point, the lack of a sweet villain basically cuts the film's heart out; a far more brutal and tragic death than any portrayed within the narrative.

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