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PLOT: A mysterious vigilante cursed with supernatural visions singles out disgraced FBI agent Tom Mackelway as the man to apprehend a prolific serial killer.
COMMENTS: There’s a certain level of hubris, even for a cinematic interpretation of the FBI, in naming a secret program “Project Icarus.” Training agents in the gift of second sight to allow them to pursue elusive murderers, “Project Icarus” suggests unavoidable doom for the participants. All those involved end up dead or insane, except for one—who’s still kind of nuts. Ben Kingsley provides a stellar performance as Ben O’Ryan, the kind-of-nuts agent cursed with the sight; Aaron Eckhart provides a middling performance as Tom Mackelway, a migraine-prone lawman; and Carrie-Anne Moss is reduced to just kicking around as, perhaps, the audience’s conduit into the action. With the man behind Begotten and Shadow of the Vampire orchestrating what should be a hazy, unsettling outing in the world of serial killers, one has to wonder went gone wrong, and if hubris had anything to do with that.
Merhige has somehow managed to direct a ho-hum procedural here, which is a real pity. The stakes seem to be high—there are hundreds of dead and missing people, most of them children, and the killer(s) evade justice—but Eckhart’s FBI man just seems kind of addled and pissed off (explained at least in part by the fact that the poor guy suffers from constant headaches). There’s a bit of ambiguity, I suppose, vis-à-vis O’Ryan: no one that calm and smiling could possibly be an unalloyed goodie, right? Eh, maybe. Or not. Whenever Kingsley wasn’t on screen, it was a bit difficult to care.
Looking closely, one can see the missed opportunities here. Merhige unfortunately keeps his keen sense of visual on the stylistic periphery. The dark art of “Remote Viewing,” the technical term for the paranormal power of perception, is a treat to view, with visions of the crimes, and those involved, coming through the viewer’s pupil in the form of a sepia-’90s camcorder hybrid. There are also singularly creepy charcoal renderings, and the occasional shot of what I’ll call as the Wandering Merhige Eye (those familiar with Begotten may guess it’s an extreme close-up of a troubled, scanning eyeball).
My best guess is that main(ish)-stream filmmaking is beyond the reach of certain auteurs who are steeped in their own vision. (John Paisz is another of these, albeit in a manner quite different from Merhige.) Begotten is one of the most original films of the second half of the 20th century. It is something extreme, and different from just about any feature film. Shadow of the Vampire similarly explores mythical (and ocular) themes through a comedy-horror lens. Unfortunately, Suspect Zero is little more than wasted potential across the board. That’s not to say it isn’t “good enough,” but it is merely good enough—when it could have been a tantalizing vision of humanity’s darkest corners.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…perhaps there is another, more bizarre and involved explanation, and the killer is either hidden in plain view among the major characters or is never seen at all until the climax. I am not spoiling any secrets, but simply applying logic to plot that offers zero sum as well as zero suspects…. Merhige is a gifted director with a good visual sense and a way of creating tension where it should not exist. But Suspect Zero is too devised and elaborate to really engage us.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)