***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss, Harry J. Lennix
screenplay by Zak Penn and Billy Ray
directed by E. Elias Merhige
by Walter Chaw A metaphysical serial killer film, E. Elias Merhige's Suspect Zero is implications and shadows married to exploitation and shock: a queasy stew dredging the well of archetype that disturbs with the blasted nihilism of its vision. With its wastelands and its bloated, appallingly fertile cadavers reaching into their own wounds, it reminds of Merhige's own avant-garde silent film Begotten; and it reminds of Dario Argento's Deep Red, literally in the reveal of a wallpaper-palimpsest and figuratively in the intrusion of the supernatural into the mendacity of a crime story. This is the only kind of police procedural film possible after Se7en, one that doesn't go over the same theological ground but rather forges paths through more philological terrain--the serial killer genre as Thomas Harris tried to redefine it for the literary elite. Suspect Zero is smart and anxious.
FBI Agent Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart, in his best performance since In the Company of Men) has been re-assigned to America's desert Siberia, somewhere among the white sands and Saguaro sunsets, to serve out his career after screwing the pooch on a high-profile serial-rapist case. He's the prototypical noir Oedipal detective, harbouring a dark past and searching, essentially, for his own heart of darkness. That shadow manifests itself in former FBI profiler O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley), who was once part of a government experiment to create "remote viewers": limited psychics capable of finding missing persons and, in O'Ryan's case, locating serial killers. But, as O'Ryan complains, no one tells him how to "turn off" the visions, and so he's doomed to be a voyeur to unimaginable acts. (What he does involuntarily, Merhige suggests, we do voluntarily when we choose to watch a film about serial killers.) More than just passive spectator, however, O'Ryan (homonym "Orion" was a hunter, after all) decides to track down these predators in the hopes of one day landing the "fifty-foot shark" of a serial killer that has no pattern and grazes the playgrounds and backyards of the United States with voracity and impunity--the so-called "Suspect Zero."
Though it works on a narrative level, Suspect Zero is more successful on a symbolic one. A lidless eye becomes the leitmotif of the piece, at once recalling the calling card of the Illuminati and, after a slash is put through it, the razored-eyeball of Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou. Buñuel is a primary influence on Merhige, surrealism and German Expressionism the two threads the director explores in his films, beginning with the brilliant avant-garde fever dream of Begotten through the ballsy Shadow of the Vampire (a film that still angers some cineastes over its vision of F.W. Murnau as some sort of despotic Griffith) and now Suspect Zero, which has the audacity to introduce a very Max Shreck-ian Ben Kingsley at an all-night roadside diner with a camera set upside-down. The image of the unblinking eye is something used to great effect in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, of course, and it speaks eloquently to an idea of paranoia in an era where the idea of privacy is challenged in every aspect of our culture. What the eye represents is not only an all-seeing entity, but also the inability to look away.
Knowledge being dangerous is as old as Eve's apple and Prometheus's fire, so while Merhige's eye provides the means by which O'Ryan can "see" murderers' murderous deeds, it's also the means through which O'Ryan is driven mad by his knowledge. The top-secret FBI experiment that produces O'Ryan, then, is naturally called "Project Icarus"--a myth that encapsulates the idea of too much wisdom gained in trying to ascend toward that Promethean fire of right reason. Suspect Zero is a marvellously complicated but decidedly sure-footed stroll through basic Jungian tenets. It's an indictment of our mass media (consider that the camera lens is another unblinking eye)--evidence of one foul misdeed is buried beneath newspaper piles--and an exploration of what Joseph Campbell referred to as the masks of God. The suggestion at the end of this journey isn't smug, nor is it easy; rather, the film proposes that we're all the sum of all of human experience, making each of us capable of atrocity--and responsible for it, too. By the finale of Suspect Zero, one of the anti-heroes will embrace his shadow and the other will deny it. It's not about surprise twists and convoluted plotting, it's about accountability and the tragedy of being human.
Paramount brings Suspect Zero to the DVD format in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that preserves the "painterly" quality of Michael Chapman's cinematography with a clean, textured, filmic appearance.* It's a fairly recent trend in video transfers, and an excellent one at that, to seem more interested in conjuring the illusion of celluloid than in providing the sort of sharply-enhanced, laminated look that's possible with current technology. (Compare the theatrical experience of Atanarjuat with the home video miscue for the extreme example of when telecine operators go wrong.) In any event, Suspect Zero's colour palette is brown and rich--the reds of O'Ryan's visions are electric, while the "snow" of Mackelway's is jarring. The accompanying DD 5.1 audio explodes whenever things get a little psychedelic, with Clint Mansell's underestimated score all but "bonging" off the low registers and the discrete channels.
For a film that did so poorly and was the subject of such an avalanche of derision, the studio has given it a gratifyingly complete "unofficial" Special Edition treatment that includes a feature-length yakker from Merhige, a lengthy featurette on the phenomena of remote viewing, an alternate ending, and a curious segment in which Merhige does his own remote viewing under the wing of a retired military "psychic spy." I'm of two minds about Merhige's highbrow commentary in that on the one hand, it's not something I've ever heard before, yet on the other hand, it's a little ripe with self-importance. Levity is always welcome, truly, but failing that, Merhige--well-prepared throughout--approaches the track as an opportunity to deconstruct the themes of the film with an eye towards, ultimately, delivering an admonition that we all should embrace our shadows lest we're swallowed whole by them. If there's plenty of meat in here for detractors to chew on, there's plenty, too, for supporters to champion. Find me somewhere on what Merhige calls "the liminal gate"--swinging between agreeing a lot and being embarrassed that it's been put forward in such a heavy-handed fashion.
"What We See When We Close Our Eyes" (30 mins.) is a concise look at one of our military's more peculiar experiments, which found the guardians at the gate spending millions of taxpayer dollars exploring the viability of remote viewing as a Cold War spying machine. Clips from the flick share time with a long interview featuring Merhige, Stanford egghead Russell Tarq, and Paul H. Smith, retired Army Major and real-life participant in the ESP studies--each of whom is dedicated to the task of convincing that there just might be a kernel of truth buried in there. It's a fun piece carried off with professionalism. Less so is a "Remote Viewing Demonstration" (10 mins.), wherein Merhige is made to give the trick a try and appears to have remarkable success at it. Merhige seems like an (overly) earnest fellow, so I'm willing to show him the benefit of the doubt that he's not pulling a Shyamalan on us. A quick, letterboxed alternate ending (1 min.) with optional director's commentary finds Mackelway a year after the events of the film, introducing himself the same way that O'Ryan does in the prologue; Merhige--correctly, I think--notes that this ending is too typical and a cop-out to the emotional complexity of the one in the final cut. An Internet trailer and previews for Alfie, Enduring Love, The Machinist, and Coach Carter (the latter quartet playing upon insertion) round out the packed platter. Originally published: May 24, 2005.