In 10 Words or Less
A stylish serial-killer thriller from deep inside the mind
Pair up Zak Penn, the writer behind Inspector Gadget, with E. Elias Merhige, the director of Shadow of the Vampire, and you know the end result is going to be something different. Perhaps not good, possibly interesting but certainly different.
The script Penn created with the name Suspect Zero is supposedly quite different than the one that resulted in the finished film, as it was sold to Universal in 1997, dragged through numerous rewrites before finally being released in 2004, without its original star, Tom Cruise. Instead, there is Aaron Eckhart (In the Company of Men), as demoted FBI agent Thomas Mackelway, a shamed Dallas investigator whose bungling of a serial-killer case set free a murderer, and landed him in New Mexico (or "the minors," as it's referred to.)
Eckhart is sufficiently tortured, as an agent unable to forgive or forget, whose headaches require a nearly-constant intake of aspirin. Other than that, he's a shell of a character, one lifted directly from the Hollywood Book of Special Agents, where you find men with obsessions that double as or substitute for personality traits. Outside of his medicinal abuses and standard-issue secret past, there's not much to Mackelway, a fact made more obvious when paired with fellow agent and ex-wife Fran, played without much effort by Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix.) That the audience is asked to believe they had a relationship at any point might be a bigger leap than anything in the rest of the story.
Mackelway's first case in the Land of Enchantment is tracking down a serial killer who leaves his victims marked with a slashed circle. It's Mackelway's case because he received faxes that taunt him, giving hints as to who is behind the murders. Some investigation points to the reasons why he was selected as a fax friend, but it doesn't explain to the agent what the answers are. Those won't be fully fleshed out until some time later, whether Mackelway likes it or not.
The other main character in the film is played by Ben Kingsley, who is uber-creepy, the way only bald men can be. Playing his role, a man with meta-psychic abilities known as "remote viewing," to the hilt, he instills the movie with a madness that works in ways it probably shouldn't. Sadly, I can't say much more without influencing how one might see this movie, which I wouldn't ever want to do. Not even in a movie that puts everything (or at least almost everything) right out in the open from the start.
While the plot isn't Grade A, this take on the obsession of law enforcement, serial killing, government plots and the depths of the human mind gets bonus points for trying something new. Of course, with Merhige at the helm, this movie is more about feel and atmosphere, which he knows as well as any director working today. Sure, his style is loaded with gimmicks and art-seemingly-for-art's-sake, but it's effective in making Suspect Zero a disturbing and unsettling film, while not going too over the top with the gore. Instead, unique choices in camera angles and editing put the audience off-balance, until the end, which disappointingly could have been spliced from any number of desert/cop thrillers. It was a bit of a let-down for a movie that is otherwise quite different than the standard.
Paramount has released two versions of the one-disc Suspect Zero, one in full-frame and the other in widescreen. The anamorphic widescreen main menu is animated, with footage from the film, in a way that can most-easily described as Se7en-ish, with options to play the film, set up the languages and subtitles, view the special features and select scenes. Language options include English, French and a director's commentary, while subtitles for English and Spanish are available. The scene selection menus include still previews and titles for each scene, and the entire menu design is nearly monochromatic, and matches the look of the film well. Closed captioning is included, and in a nice touch, the bonus features have subtitles.
Suspect Zero's look was created using different lens, techniques, treatments and styles, creating intentional distortions, color schemes and grain, so it's hard to baseline the presentation. The "standard" footage looks great, without any dirt or damage. Appropriate color and black levels and a minimum of grain make for an excellent picture that's encoded on the upper end of the spectrum for good levels of detail. An important factor for such a visual film, the presentation is very good.
The audio, done in Dolby 5.1 Surround, is the appropriate match for the image, with very active surrounds. There's a very deep soundfield for this movie, with lots of atmospheric sounds on the fringes, helping to create a sense of suspense. The dialogue has no troubles, and the subtle parts of the soundtrack come through without distortion.
The feature-length audio commentary by Merhige may be the least jovial track ever committed to DVD. Merhige describes the action on-screen often, as if he was reading a shooting script, while throwing in his thoughts about the story or shooting style ocassionally. There's no discussion of the actors or stories from the set, as this commentary is all about what you see in the film. Merhige's low-key and overly serious tone borders on a parody of self-important directors, but it seems like he truly believes what he's saying. The thought that he put into the story, the images and his technique are very impressive.
There's more Mehrige commentary available for the Alternate Ending to the film. To have left it in wouldn't have hurt the movie, but his reasoning is understandable, as explained in his audio track. This minute-long scene is presented in letterboxed widescreen.
A four-part, 30-minute featurette, "What We See When We Close Our Eyes," is not what one would expect. Instead of a four-part look behind-the-scenes of Suspect Zero, this is a half-hour, letterboxed widescreen exploration of the main concept of the film, remote viewing. The director interviewed several people about the concept, including people trainined in remote viewing by the military, scientists, philosophers and himself, and the informative interviews are combined with footage of examples of the concept from the film. This is a great featurette about the paranormal.
There's more remote viewing in an 11-minute demonstration of the concept, hosted by Merhige. Depending on your level of cynicism, you'll view this featurette though your own lens. It's well-done and made just for the DVD by the director, so it's a nice bonus, though presented in letterboxed widescreen..
A group of trailers that are forced at the beginning of the DVD are presented again in one reel in the bonus features, along with the Internet Trailer for Suspect Zero.
On the Hunt
There's at least one easter egg included on this DVD, which can help increase your own perception. See DVDTalk's easter egg section for details.
The Bottom Line
Style is the selling point of this movie, but the story is pretty interesting and one of the more original serial-killer films made in recent memory. That's probably because, as Merhige says on his commentary, he didn't make a serial-killer film, and instead was telling a tale of justice and the darker corners of the mind. It may be a lofty goal, but an honorable one. The DVD presentation is quite good, and more content-driven than most, putting the entire focus on the story, with almost a complete lack of fluff. Fans of serial-killer thrillers and psychic phenomenon will want to check out this moody movie.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.