2004-09-03 / Arts & Entertainment

Psychological Thriller “Fails To Deliver”

(Left to right) Aaron Eckhart as Agent Tom Mackelway and Ben Kingsley as Benjamin O’Ryan.                                                                                            (Left to right) Aaron Eckhart as Agent Tom Mackelway and Ben Kingsley as Benjamin O’Ryan. By David Germain

AP Movie Writer

A nondescript title such as “Suspect Zero’’ is fitting for director E. Elias Merhige’s psychological thriller, a muddle of fractured images and nebulous motivations that aspires to dramatic weight it does not possess.

The premise — a serial killer preying on serial killers — is fresh on the surface, but Zak Penn and Billy Ray’s script veers from that notion to wallow in its titular theme of a protean, virtually untraceable suspect.

Merhige then all but abandons any pretense of a script for minutes at a time to fling disjointed montages — victims’ faces, lidless eyes, abductions of children conveyed through abandoned playthings such as a suddenly vacant swing or a basketball rolling idly away.

The visual barrages often make after-thoughts of Merhige’s principal players — Aaron Eckhart and Carrie-Anne Moss as FBI agents, Ben Kingsley as a shadowy manipulator baiting them.

While Merhige made fine and appropriate use of his German Expressionist influences in his acclaimed “Shadow of the Vampire,” similar representations feel self-indulgent in “Suspect Zero.”

Some of the imagery is quite striking, yet it collectively comes off as a heavy-handed exercise in visualizing diseased minds. The movie tries to delve so deeply into the subconscious that it forgets to come up for air.

Eckhart plays Thomas Mackelway, an FBI agent disgraced by his failure on a previous serial-murder case. Paired with former partner Fran Kulok (Moss), Mackelway is thrust into a new case in which the gruesome slayings take on personal meaning.

A mental patient named Benjamin O’Ryan (Kings-ley) is quickly revealed as the killer, but his motives are cloudy. A refugee from a government experiment in extrasensory perception, he possesses strange powers to foretell his victims’ — and Mackelway’s — movements, and seems to be leaving bodies like bread crumbs as a puzzle for the agent to unravel.

Seemingly doing the authorities a favor by ridding society of other mass murderers, O’Ryan leads Mackelway into his obsession about “suspect zero” — a “random killing machine that never leaves a clue.”

Mackelway begins to suspect that O’Ryan is pursuing a murderer responsible for killing an unthinkable number of vanished people. Yet his bureau colleagues lean toward an easier solution: O’Ryan himself is the killer they seek.

The story intrigues early on, promising fresh twists, suspense and surprises in the tired subgenre of grisly serial-killer tales. In the end, “Suspect Zero” fails to deliver much new, providing mainly mood and atmosphere without substance.

Kingsley’s intensity, ferocity, melancholy and occasional manifestations of black humor salvage the movie to an extent.

As a tormented leading man, Eckhart is reasonably effective, though he grows tiresome crunching handful after handful of aspirin and seems to have only two emotional states: Agitated and more agi-tated.

Moss is given little to do beyond staring in frustration and consternation, while Harry Lennix as the agent in charge is nothing but a tough-talking foil.

“You know what, Tom?’’ he tells Mackelway, after the umpteenth repetition of the phrase “suspect zero.’’ “I’m extremely tired of that term.’’

Same here.

“Suspect Zero,” is rated R for violent content, language and some nudity. Running time: 99 minutes.

©2004 Paramount Pictures

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