E. Elias Merhige is a director with a flair for haunting visuals and very little else. In his Shadow of the Vampire, Willem Dafoe cut a chilling figure as Max Schreck, but whenever he opened his mouth, I wished the film, like its source, Murnau’s Nosferatu, were silent. Nasty, creepy things are much more frightening when they’re not yammering on about how nasty and creepy they are, like an insurance salesman who’s cornered you at a cocktail party. Merhige’s new film, Suspect Zero, is full of sinister atmosphere and effective imagery from veteran cinematographer Michael Chapman, but it too would benefit from an absence of dialogue.
The plot is convoluted, but basically it’s a two-character piece about Ben O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley), a serial killer who stalks other serial killers, and Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), the FBI agent he loves. The magisterial Kingsley is mostly able to bring off his role, though his American accent nags at you. He keeps it pretty consistent, but rather than simply assaying the broad, uninflected tone usually assumed by English actors playing American, Kingsley is needlessly, distractingly specific, and I spent some time trying to guess where (Baltimore?) his character was supposed to be from.
Eckhart does less well, though, being horribly miscast, he’s not entirely to blame. His dialogue is written as fussy and meticulous, which doesn’t suit his rangy all-American quality at all. I laughed when he roared, “Ever hear of evidentiary procedure?!” at a thoughtless tow-truck driver, and I tittered quietly when he responded to a simple question with, “Not precisely, no,” enunciating “precisely” with a hard “e” and looking uncomfortable enough to suggest this was his first time saying the word. I can imagine, say, Christopher Walken being able to seem both persnickety and intemperate enough to pull this off, but it’s just not in Eckhart’s range.
The dialogue isn’t just wrong for Eckhart’s style of acting, though; it doesn’t fit the contours of the character. Mackalway is that hoary cliche of movie law enforcement: the brilliant maverick whose superiors don’t understand him. For apprehending a murderer in Mexico without jurisdiction, he’s been suspended for six months and reassigned to Albuquerque, which the film depicts as a truly grim fate. It’s implied that Albuquerque is such an armpit that it doesn’t even have a Starbuck’s! Actually, there are eight, according to the Starbuck’s website, but this shows the kind of thoughtful writing we’re up against (the screenplay is by Zak Penn, who wrote Behind Enemy Lines and Inspector Gadget, and Billy Ray, who gave us Volcano and Color of Night), in which the presence of a coffee chain is a marker of civilization, and it doesn’t even occur to anyone that such a dubious statement is a distraction to the audience.
So, Mackalway is the misunderstood good cop and O’Ryan is the killer who plays the old cat-and-mouse game, not because he wants to get caught but so he can draw Mackalway, whom he sees as a kindred spirit, into taking over the business. Would that we all had such mentors. This plays out well enough until the two are finally brought together, and Kingsley throws all subtlety out the door, wailing and gnashing his teeth with relish.
There are a couple of other actors in the movie, I think, and one of them may have been Carrie-Anne Moss, from the Matrix trilogy, but she wasn’t onscreen quite enough for me to be certain. I did catch Harry Lennix, whom I enjoyed as the slimy developer in Barbershop 2, but it would have been better to miss him as well. As Mackalway’s new boss, he abandons the sly, scheming style he used in B2 and delivers his lines in the voice of Urkel, from ABC’s late, unlamented “Family Matters.” Perhaps the glasses he wears in the film are cursed.
Even the elements in Suspect Zero that do work (almost exclusively the visuals) are overdone. The first time an image is shot upside down, when feet enter a room as though by the ceiling, it heightens the scene’s eeriness. By the fourth or fifth time something is filmed this way, it comes across as a pointless affectation.
To call this film another example of style trumping substance would be misleading, though, since even style is abandoned in the final 20 minutes. Perhaps it’s an example of high-concept trumping everything. A book about a similar serial killer who targets his fellows, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay, has been getting a lot of attention this summer, and it’s probably not solely due to the brilliant use of alliteration. We can only hope that both make as much money as possible, so we may look forward to two or three years more of films and books with the theme. Now there’s a dark dream indeed.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()