Suspect Zero opens in a rain-soaked, garbage-strewn drainage ditch, and given the serial-killer genre's hoary conventions, we're sure the camera will pull back to reveal the lifeless form of our first victim. Instead, the camera lifts up to reveal a rural diner where we join a salesman on his late-night coffee break, and the odd man (Ben Kingsley) who harasses him.
Soon there is a killing, and law enforcement arrives, embodied by Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), a troubled FBI agent who's been busted down to the New Mexico beat after a screw-up in Dallas. The first murder leads to a second -- and suggests a sophisticated serial killer who may be targeting Mackelway and his investigation. Somebody is bombarding Mackelway with clues while tossing his past disgrace in his face, and it's unclear whether these communiqués are designed to taunt the agent or to guide him.
Some viewers may soon dismiss Suspect Zero, with its noticeable lack of on-screen murders and jump-out scares, as dull or stupid; the plot is almost secondary, and frankly doesn't bear close scrutiny. In place of a rote thriller, director E. Elias Merhige -- who went from directing Marilyn Manson videos to the 1999 critical indie fave Shadow of the Vampire -- creates a stylistic mood piece about evil, madness, guilt, and the psychic burdens carried by those commissioned to prevent the very worst crimes.
Merhige contrasts bursts of explanatory exposition with long stretches of dialogue-free action and jumbled dream-like images, all while rapidly shifting film stocks, camera angles, lighting and editing styles. Motifs appear -- roadways, numbers, black holes and circular symbols -- and disconcerting sounds combine with ambient music to create an unsettling score. Disjointed storylines and images don't begin to gel until nearly a third of the film has passed: The unidentified Kingsley character sits in a motel room scribbling madly; scenes of a dark semi truck passing by playgrounds suggest menace but reveal nothing; notices of missing kids pour frantically from a fax machine; Mackelway is tormented by headaches, an obsessive sense of justice -- and grainy visions.
The who-done-it aspects of the story are red herrings, strung together so that we might peer into the fevered minds of a killer and his tracker. Evil, Suspect Zero posits, is not the bad guy neatly apprehended in the last reel, but an organic force like the sea or the wind that can be occasionally controlled but ultimately never held back, ensnaring victims and those we ask to stop it. As the film's recurring lidless eyeballs suggest, Mavkelway's burden is seeing -- recognizing -- the pervasiveness of this horror, and worse, his utter inability to ever look away.