You know how fear is scary? Well, director E. Elias Merhige is into that, especially in his new serial-killer thriller Suspect Zero. Absent, however, is the dark-comic malevolence the director smartly cultivated in his successful and disquieting Shadow of the Vampire a few years ago, bullied and bulldozed out of the way by stock noirish chills and a passé, late-blooming David Fincher fetish. Merhige is too talented to be dismissed as a wannabe, but here his gifts for clever angles and oogy feelings are tethered to blasé genre redundancies and very clunky storytelling. Looks great, less thrilling. I blame the screenwriters.
Yes, because this is a movie about wanton torture and cruelty, let's rustle up Zak Penn (Inspector Gadget) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) and smack 'em a couple of times each with a newspaper: Bad screenwriters! No Oscar! Clearly they had some fun, stealing liberally from The Hitcher and The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en and even Paramount's recent, zany Manchurian Candidate remake (the mind-control and behavioral-disorder riffs feel and look like shared outtakes), but a cherry-picked bucket of creepouts does not a classic thriller make.
Our Clarice Starling this time is named Tom Mackelway, played by Aaron Eckhart very much as if he's wondering how soon he can flee the hot, uneasy locations. Conveniently, he's supposed to look uncomfortable and detached, because Tom is an FBI agent booted from the Dallas bureau to teensy little Albuquerque, owing to a significant professional faux pas. He now suffers chronic migraines, becomes vaguely paranoid and -- as luck would have it -- gets to investigate a gruesome and narratively vital highway homicide mere minutes into his new job.
We've already met the carved-up stiff, a portly traveling salesman who favors a funky-junky roadside eatery that's half Flo and half Sanford and Son. In the opening sequence, the man merely wants his coffee "topped off" but ends up with his eyelids lopped off, courtesy of Ben Kingsley. In real life Kingsley is about as tall and threatening as a garden gnome, but as evidenced in Sexy Beast, he relishes playing the psycho. Here he really puts out as a crazed mystery man with an almost-American accent, but alas, if only li'l Gandhi's aggressive compensation tactics had somewhere to go besides a series of increasingly frustrating loopholes and some ill-explained "subplot" regarding a 50-foot shark.
Meanwhile there is Tom, who is remarkably inept, even for a government agent. He gets caught out constantly, by implausibly punctual beat cops, and in a very crowded outdoor carnival in broad daylight, and even because he's stupid enough to crouch in a vulnerable, perspective-limiting close-up shot during a dangerous desert chase (one of a few cheap directorial shortcuts). The guy definitely needs moral support. Enter Carrie-Anne Moss (love-starved Matrix geeks may read that as they please) as the intriguingly named Fran Kulok. Fran is Tom's associate and failed flame from the Dallas bureau who is written quite boringly. While Eckhart runs around panicking over Kingsley's connection to a string of gruesome murders, including one that cuts very close to home, Moss is basically forced to loiter with her patented blank-yet-grimly-concerned expression. There's more passion in the movie's hideous and pointlessly graphic rape scene than there is in the transplanted Texans' relationship, which says a few weird things about the filmmakers.
Merhige has done his best to raise the ante, though, incorporating into the flat script the practice of "remote viewing, " an apparently legitimate psychic technique wherein the trained user feels, sees and records information outside his own realm of experience. A couple of characters here possess this ability, and it pretty much drives them bonkers, catalyzing hard-core obsessive-compulsive behavior. In addition to the illustrative twitching and flinching, there's a lot of slick editing and sound design, plus some "eerie" low-end video effects. The director throws in the whole toybox to convince us that America is a terrifying place where death and mayhem rule and sensitive souls had better take cover.
With any movie, thriller or otherwise, a competent, intriguing setup brings nervous tension, because we're anxious to see if the storytellers can keep us involved, close with a flourish and send us out satisfied. This is where Suspect Zero stumbles. The title refers to the ultimate elusive killer, who leaves no clues and operates out of sheer malevolence. This concept is finally paid off in a way that's admittedly unusual but also surprisingly tepid, a great big shrug, capped by another glaring lift from Se7en -- definitely murder by numbers.