Welcome to the summer movie doldrums—the time around Labor Day that's infamously regarded as the stinky armpit of the year's release dates.

You would think some studio would wise up to this phenomenon and present a worthwhile film for the holiday weekend. Instead, there must be marketing data that suggests audiences are too busy giving summer one last hurrah outdoors, or else taking one last chance to catch up on earlier summer blockbusters. Anyone else seeking something new at this time of year is usually left with rancid mystery meat served as a Blue Plate Special-the kind of movie that's too costly to send directly to video and too terrible to stack up against healthy film competition. (Anyone recall 2003's Swimfan?)

Aaron Eckhart does NOT play a shadowy figure in this movie

Aaron Eckhart does NOT play a shadowy figure in this movie

Suspect Zero is the latest casualty of this Hollywood tradition, and it's got all the symptoms to prove it—significant script revisions, release delays (the movie went into production August 2002), problems securing a high-profile cast. And on top of all that, the ad campaign reveals nearly all of its secrets; if you've seen the trailers or commercials for this movie, you already know the key plot points. Many would say it's the responsibility of film marketers to protect their stories, but the studios believe that it's their responsibility to show audiences exactly what to expect. That leaves us film critics with the responsibility of telling you when the advertisements have said too much—without revealing too much ourselves. But really, the ultimate responsibility falls on the moviemakers for creating a screenplay that's tough to sell without giving away its major plot developments. Circle of life …

The basics: Suspect Zero is essentially an X-files episode that wishes it were as disturbing and visually arresting as David Fincher's Seven (it's not). Agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhardt of Paycheck and The Core) has been recently transferred to the Albuquerque, New Mexico branch of the FBI. You know the type—the seemingly good agent with the troubled past that's bound to haunt him again later in the film. And indeed, someone seems to know about Mackelway's past, sending faxes of missing children reports to him with clues and personal information. His first case leads him to a dead salesman, murdered in his car near a diner, which in turn leads to other related murders … and a deeper, darker secret.

Carrie-Anne Moss plays an Agent Scully wannabe

Carrie-Anne Moss plays an Agent Scully wannabe

Chances are that I've just made Suspect Zero sound more intriguing than it really is. Without giving away too much, there are two separate ideas at the heart of the movie. One is the theory of a Suspect Zero—the perfect serial killer, able to randomly commit atrocities across the country without leaving any clues or evidence. The other is the concept of "remote viewing," a somewhat obscure "science" supposedly used by the military and the FBI that taps into the psychic potential, allowing users to sketch out a crime scene for locating and apprehending a target. This is the kind of stuff that the Internet and radio talk show host Art Bell live for.

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Enter Benjamin O'Ryan (Sir Ben Kingsley of Thunderbirds and House of Sand and Fog), reportedly a remote viewer who left the FBI years ago to escape his own inner demons. Throughout the movie, we see O'Ryan perhaps murdering the victims Mackelway is investigating, and sketching macabre images with an intensity that suggests madness. His role in this story is pretty much the only mystery in Suspect Zero. Is he the killer that Mackelway is pursuing? Is he helping him? Both?

Ben Kingsley gets all creepy on Kevin Chambelin at the diner

Ben Kingsley gets all creepy on Kevin Chambelin at the diner

To be honest, it's not much of a mystery. Early drafts of the script intriguingly focused on the concept of Suspect Zero, tracking a serial killer who impersonates other serial killers to foil investigators. Instead, director E. Elias Merhige (2000's Shadow of the Vampire) felt obliged to clutter the story by adding the paranormal element of remote viewing. The result is a thriller without suspense that fails to explore either concept with any depth or intelligence. Our Suspect Zero simply crosses the country killing children, but it's never explained how he's able to pull it off while avoiding leaving clues. Remote viewing "treats" viewers to a lot of creepy scenes of Kingsley drawing as he listens to a strange tape of sonic squeals and hypnotic commands, inducing his psychic state, but its process and history are never really explained.

Another major flaw in the film is that the O'Ryan character just doesn't add up. Take the opening scene involving the salesman victim. It's a dark and stormy night (natch) and he's nervously eating at a Mexican diner. O'Ryan enters menacingly and sits at the salesman's table (without him noticing). After asking him strange questions and showing him disturbing sketches, the salesman rushes out the door. The camera follows him in the rain as he walks across the lot to his car. As he opens the door, he is startled by a second car's starting from across the lot. The salesman quickly enters his car, slamming the heavy and noisy door shut, and pulling onto the road. The other car seems to follow him, headlights looming from the rear, but it turns out to be a false alarm as it angrily passes the salesman. At that point, O'Ryan pops up from the backseat and gets the salesman.

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Scully and Mulder, er, Kulok and Mackelway on the case

Scully and Mulder, er, Kulok and Mackelway on the case

Now I ask you—if we saw the salesman leave O'Ryan in the diner and followed his path to the car, how did O'Ryan get in unnoticed if he isn't supernatural or Special Forces? Here's another one. If O'Ryan is troubled by his dark visions and wants to "turn it off," and he needs a cassette tape of hypnotic suggestions to induce his remote viewing, then why on earth doesn't he throw away the tape? Any answers to these questions are inadequately explained in the movie's content, which fails to delve into O'Ryan's past or his motivations with any clarity or reason.

We're left with a series of serial killer and FBI clichés. Carrie-Ann Moss of The Matrix films takes the Agent Scully role as Mackelway's ex-partner and ex-girlfriend Fran Kulok (where did they get these names?). She's conveniently brought in to help after Mackelway's first day of work—no, there isn't a mysterious reason for this—and the two immediately start to squabble like an old married couple for one scene. Once the case gets rolling, however, their relationship is never explored again with any insight or poignancy. When Mackleway is alone and calls for backup later in the movie, want to guess who shows up first within a minute … in the middle of the New Mexico desert, no less?

If this were a comprehensible movie, we'd be two steps ahead of the agents, but the storytelling is too choppy and confusing to make any sense of it. It's more interested in being creepy for the sake of creepiness, often moving at a twitchy snail's pace with long lingering shots and odd camera angles. But rather than feel fear or suspense, the audience is more likely to be bored out of its mind. The acting is generally wooden and the characters are too emotionally detached. We've no one to care about or root for, because we're too busy trying to make sense of the mess. We're not even concerned about the little boy kidnapped by Suspect Zero because he's never established—for all we know, he's just a figment of O'Ryan's disturbed psyche.

With all of its problems, one might suspect that this film deserves zero stars, but I don't even want to bestow it with such a dubious honor. It's not memorably awful like such infamously bad and campy films of film history (most recently, Catwoman). Mercifully just 100 minutes long, it's a forgettable and pointless empty shell of a movie—a John Doe corpse, if you will, destined to remain unidentified, or in this case, unviewed.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. In the film, O'Ryan gives a bereavement card that states, "God works in mysterious ways." Is God always in control, even seemingly making good come from evil? Or is there a difference between God's plans and delusional evil?

  2. What does the Bible teach us about visions? How do we discern if they're of God or not?

  3. O'Ryan preaches a lot about destiny and the future. Are our lives written in stone, or do we have the ability to make choices and change our future?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Like TV's CSI and films in the serial killer genre, the violence in Suspect Zero isn't too graphic, but the cadavers are. Several bodies are found with mutilation around the eyes (wow, this like reporting for CSI!). More disturbing is a near rape scene, which accounts for the brief nudity mentioned by the MPAA. The language is R-rated as well. Definitely not for kids or anyone generally turned off by dark-toned thrillers about serial killers.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/02/04

"Zero" is just about right. Very few critics found things to applaud after viewing Suspect Zero.

This not-so-thrilling thriller follows the efforts of a powerful, mysterious man named O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley) to help an FBI agent (Paycheck's Aaron Eckhardt) and his ex-partner (The Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss) track a serial killer. Despite the participation of Oscar-winner Kingsley, this film won't be winning any awards. Director E. Elias Merhige's mix of Minority Report, The Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en proved to be a bad idea, and it barely reached the box office top ten for the weekend.

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) gave it just a half star, noting that "the storytelling is too choppy and confusing to make any sense of [the movie]. It's more interested in being creepy for the sake of creepiness, often moving at a twitchy snail's pace with long lingering shots and odd camera angles. But rather than feel fear or suspense, the audience is more likely to be bored out of its mind."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) writes, "Ever since the box office success of Silence of the Lambs and Seven, lots of directors have tried to pull off the stylishly photographed crime thriller. Merhige tries so hard he falls down. The result is little more than a cliché factory."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it a "relentlessly dreary and generic thriller … muddled and morose. [It] follows a predictable cat-and-mouse formula … culminating in a, yawn, shocking revelation. Though earnest in intent and stylishly crafted, the film's to-catch-a-killer-you-have-to-think-like-one premise is, by now, getting quite old."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "It is creepy, but when you start to think about it, everything falls apart."

Brian Godawa, screenwriter of To End All Wars and author of Hollywood Worldviews, argues in his blog (Godawa.com) that Suspect Zero arrives at "a good conclusion that evil is real and it lives on. We're not heroes vanquishing evil like gods, we are humans struggling with it and always will." But he agrees with others that "it never quite entered the supreme quality realm of Se7en or Silence of the Lambs, which are the obvious goals of the film."

Mainstream critics are giving the film scores near zero.

Suspect Zero
Our Rating
½ Stars - Poor
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (violent content, language, and some nudity)
Directed By
E. Elias Merhige
Run Time
1 hour 39 minutes
Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss
Theatre Release
August 27, 2004 by Paramount Pictures
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