Lately, about the only genre of film more overdone than the teen comedies is the serial killer one. In the past year alone, we've seen a couple of mediocre and ultimately forgettable takes on this genre in the form of Ashley Judd's "Twisted" and Angelina Jolie's "Taking Lives". Featuring characteristics that has become the norm for such films--the twist ending, the brooding cop with a dark past, the highly intelligent killer and the gruesome and disturbing murders--serial killer films have become formulaic at best and unimaginative at worst. There is, however, one recent transformation in this genre and that is the use of a female protagonist as an alternative to the more common macho male hero. Instead of normally typecasting actresses as helpless victims, the trend is moving towards strong female leads who can kick some serial killer butts. However, as you can see, even with some fundamental progression in the storytelling aspect of this particular genre, no other film has so far, come close to matching certified classics like "Se7en" (1995) or "Silence of the Lambs" (1991).
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the latest serial killer film offering by Paramount, titled "Suspect Zero". The fact that it did rather poorly at the box office did nothing to raise my expectations. What I eventually found in "Suspect Zero" was a strange amalgamation of a slightly paranormal bent and a decent enough thriller. While the usual clichés that I mentioned earlier are still present and accounted for, "Suspect Zero" does try to differentiate itself on one important aspect and that is to have the main story base itself upon a bizarre psychic concept known as "remote viewing". Now, for those not plugged into all things psychic, and I think this applies to 99% of you (yours truly included), remote viewing is not really a supernatural concept gifted to certain special individuals but is instead a controllable and trainable mental process. According to a research website, remote viewing is "considered a controlled shifting of awareness that is performed in the normal waking state of consciousness, and it does not typically involve an out-of-body experience, hypnosis, an altered state of consciousness, or channeling". Okay, that sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo but there is a bonus extra on this DVD that shows the film's director, E. Elias Merhige himself taking part in a demonstration of remote viewing. Now Merhige is certainly not a psychic (not that I know of, anyway) and his uncanny ability to "remote view" during the demonstration proves that it is an ability that can be learned.
Anyway, I am digressing, so let's get back to talking about the film. Disgraced former hotshot FBI agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart) has just been reassigned to the bureau's out-of-the-way Albuquerque, NM office. Nothing much ever happens in this backwater area. Well, that is until Mackelway's arrival. Almost immediately, an unassuming traveling salesman turns up dead and horribly mutilated conveniently just across the state line on New Mexico's side. Quite predictably, Mackelway's former partner, the reluctant Agent Fran Kulok (Carrie-Ann Moss) is ordered to help out in the case. Soon after, they find another mutilated body with the same type of calling card wounds, which leads them to a halfway house where the mysterious Benjamin O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley), the killer of these two victims, used to live.
Apart from receiving fax messages about missing children and weird drawings from O'Ryan, Mackelway is also experiencing creepy visions that somehow act like some sort of visual clues to the real identity of the two victims and also possibly a much larger agenda. Now, the first half of this film will seem like an awful mess, with no clear direction of where the film is going, which is all made worse by the bizarre remote viewing visions that at first, seems to only cloud the storytelling process. If you feel perplexed by these bizarre goings-on at this point in the film, then rest be assured that you are not alone. Director E. Elias Merhige's use of quick-cuts and grainy and sepia-toned images to represent the remote viewing visions may prove to be unsettling but in the end, it is effective in pushing the audience to experience the same disorientation that Agent Mackelway might be going through as he tries to understand and come to terms with what O'Ryan is "showing" him. In this respect, Merhige, who has managed to retain a loyal following from his previous directorial assignment, the cult favorite "Shadow of the Vampire", is able to infuse a deep sense of foreboding throughout the film, much like what "Se7en" did. However, apart from this excellent aspect of the film, the rest of it is like a cliché-fest.
Performance-wise, it is a toss-up. While Aaron Eckhart delivers a credible enough performance and with Carrie-Anne Moss not given enough screen time for her to make any impact, it is therefore left to the always dependable Ben Kingsley to carry this film. And carry it he does. What else can I say about Ben Kingsley that has not been said before? Ever since his Oscar-winning tour de force performance in "Gandhi" and propped up by another emotional performance in "Schindler's List", Kingsley's been consistently on my list of favorite actors. The range on this guy is simply astounding. After the bore that is "Thunderbirds", Kingsley gets back in stride in "Suspect Zero", proving his mettle once again for emotionally draining roles.
"Suspect Zero" is a decent thriller that is only monumentally let down by the same old clichés found in many other similar serial killer-type flicks. In this film, the use of the remote viewing story angle and Merhige's unconventional visual style do add some new flair to an otherwise tired genre that is fast running out of new ideas.
"Suspect Zero" is presented in an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen picture measuring 1.85:1. The video transfer offers nice detail in its images and a color palette that varies between harsh sepia-tone colors to natural colors, depending on the scene. While most of the print is clear with a slight hint of grain but without any visible dirt or other artifacts, the remote viewing scenes are made to look stylistically grainy and soft. Subtitle options include English and Spanish.
The audio options on this DVD include English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Surround. Listening to this DVD using the English Dolby Digital 5.1 option, I found it to deliver a good overall aural experience that makes good use of all the five channels plus the subwoofer. Dialogue is presented clearly without any hint of distortion and the surrounds are quite actively used, especially in the action-oriented scenes.
To start off the bonus features section, we have the requisite audio commentary by director E. Elias Merhige. Listening to Merhige talk at length and in great detail about this film, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the director spent a lot of time honing the overall story, the look of the film and how he wants it to come across to an audience. This commentary is really worth at least a once through in order to fully understand some of Merhige's underlying motivations behind the more bizarre sequences in the film.
Next is a four-part featurette titled "What We See When We Close Our Eyes". It explores in finer detail the phenomenon of remote viewing. Whether you believe that it actually works or not, this featurette probably won't change your mind. Running about 30 minutes long, it features interviews with scientists, former CIA employees, military personnel and even remote viewers themselves. Connected to this is the next feature, which is a demonstration of remote viewing. In it, Merhige is given the chance to remote view a secret location picked at random and to describe and draw what he sees, just like what Ben Kingsley's character did in the movie. Although the demo was successful, it is still open to interpretation.
The next feature is an alternate ending with optional commentary by Merhige. From my own perspective, it probably wouldn't have hurt the film if this ending was used but Merhige does make a good case for excising it from the final version.
Rounding up this section is the film's internet trailer and a bunch of previews of other Paramount films.
"Suspect Zero" is packaged inside a regular keepcase without any insert.
For some unlikely reason, I kind of enjoyed "Suspect Zero" to a certain degree of tolerance. While it comes across as a decent film with some nice ideas, it is let down by some pretty routine plot points that seems to get recycled a lot. Here's hoping the next offering will have better originality than what we have seen so far.