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Photograph by Melissa Moseley

PSST! It's the Bald Guy: Aaron Eckhart races to find a serial killer (Ben Kingsley) in 'Suspect Zero.'

Kill Me Now

Are serial killers subject to the laws of physics? 'Suspect Zero' argues: perhaps not.

By Richard von Busack

YOU CAN TRUST a killer to have a fancy prose style, said Humbert Humbert in Lolita. When the game of serial-killing cats vs. dogged FBI agent unfolds this week at the movies, it has to be fancier than last week's installment. Director E. Elias Merhige, late of Shadow of the Vampire, takes Suspect Zero to an extreme of artsy-fartsiness, thanks to Michael Chapman's gimmicky photography and Anthony Leonard II's would-be eerie charcoal drawings.

Ten years ago, someone would have laughed at a movie scene that had a child get snatched off a swing set six feet from his mother in the middle of what looks like 50 miles of open space, without the mother hearing a thing or the child uttering a bleat. Audiences have been softened up over the years. We've already been shown that serial killers can be in two places at once, pick any lock and even vanish into thin air. Zak Penn's script for Suspect Zero takes their skills further to include clairvoyance.

Arriving at the FBI's base in Albuquerque is Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart). Mackelway is still under a cloud for having blown a perfectly good collar by acting like a vigilante. His case of stress is worsened when he receives bizarre messages from a killer who taunts him with mutilated cadavers. Turns out that the unnamed killer's signature—cutting off the eyelids of his victims—is actually his way of telling Mackelway to keep his eyes peeled, as more clues are coming. We've seen, in the early moments, that the murderer is Ben Kingsley, looking like an deadly Mr. Clean, who has been stalking and killing a seemingly random group of men. It doesn't take much detective skill to surmise what links them all. Eckhart is an intriguing combination of trustworthy chin and untrustworthy mouth, the residue of playing so many creeps in Neil LaBute's movies; there's not much love interest stimulated by his FBI partner, Fran (the lugubrious Carrie-Anne Moss).

This particularly decadent specimen of thriller lambastes flyover America. The first shot is the camera peering into a drainpipe, assuring us that we have now entered a sewer. Old Testament quotes, a sinister drum-and-bugle corps practicing who knows what strange rituals on a football field, slimy-looking "All American Cafes" and uncanny churches—Merhige uses all these and more to try to set the mood. The movie addresses Albuquerque as if it were some Hicksville with tumbleweeds in the streets, without a Starbucks yet (gasp).

Harry Lennix is squandered as Mackelway's boss, who still treats the agent like a loser and a weirdo, even after Mackelway has solved the killings of (by my count) about two dozen children. Suspect Zero makes it clear we're citizens of a country full of religious fanatics, serial killers and religious-fanatic serial killers. If Merhige wasn't so distracted by so much needless prettiness, the vision would have been more convincing, as it was in 21 Grams. The final good vs. evil fistfight atop a desert mesa shows that the once sturdy serial-killer drama has become as banal as any Western.

Suspect Zero (R; 100 min.), directed by E. Elias Merhige, written by Zak Penn and Billy Ray, photographed by Michael Chapman and starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley and Carrie-Anne Moss, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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