The important connection between the detective and his quarry, a staple of the mystery story since Poe, undergoes a peculiar metamorphosis in our time. Based on the evidence of both history and headlines, the serial killer is the culprit of choice these days, supplanting such quaint figures of the past as the safecracker, the jewel thief, and the criminal mastermind.
Not only does he provide an enormous quantity of material for journalists, novelists, and filmmakers, but the serial killer also encourages all those FBI profilers and forensic experts to talk endlessly on television shows, invariably identifying some elusive murderer by age, religion, employment, sex life, hobbies, and so forth, and always getting it entirely wrong. The D.C. sniper, some may recall, was supposed to be an angry, middle-aged white man with a God complex: go figure.
Thomas Harris's trilogy of novels dealing with Hannibal Lecter and their spectacular success in film adaptations probably energized the cinematic character of both killer and detective more than any single entity since Jack the Ripper stalked the dirty, dismal streets of Victorian London and the English cops, as cops will, entirely bungled the investigation. The latest cinematic combination of serial killer and FBI agent, Suspect Zero, borrows from both the Lecter trilogy and, especially in its visual techniques, from the less well-known serial killer flick Seven.
Aaron Eckhart plays Thomas Mackelway, an FBI agent demoted from Dallas to Albuquerque for violating the law in pursuit of a killer, which allowed his quarry to go free. He receives cryptic communications from someone who appears to know him and his history, listing a score of missing children, presumably the victims of "Suspect Zero," a serial killer who follows no particular pattern and obeys no particular modus operandi. While he and his generally obtuse colleagues blunder about, hunting Suspect Zero, they find a series of mutilated adult corpses, marked with a peculiar symbol, who may or may not be the victims of the murderer they seek.
The investigation ultimately uncovers the existence of a former FBI agent, Benjamin O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley), on a personal crusade to track down and punish the murderers, a serial killer who kills serial killers. An alumnus of a government program that employed psychics to find criminals, O'Ryan possesses a variety of powers connected to his extreme mental and emotional sensitivity --- telepathy, clairvoyance, and a kind of imaginative empathy --- which enable him to envision horrible crimes and identify the killers. He also perceives that Agent Mackelway shares some of his abilities, which links the two men not only as questers for the same hidden truth, but also as partners in the guilty bond that historically connects detectives and criminals.
The director shows the complicated connection between the two men through an endless assortment of visual stratagems --- rapid cuts, varying film speeds, extreme closeups of unbalanced compositions, flashbacks in grainy black and white, shared hallucinations shot through red filters, oblique camera angles, etc. The dazzling camera work, along with a musical score so insistent that it sometimes overwhelms the dialogue, imparts a palpable intensity to the action and characters, maintaining a tremendous pace and constantly ratcheting up the level of emotion. The technical virtuosity also reflects the precarious mental state of both Agent Mackelway and Benjamin O'Ryan, two men linked as much by their mutual demons as by their shared quest.
Although the film roams across the vast desert spaces of the Southwest, traversing the sere, vacant landscapes with the hunters and their various quarries, it really focuses inward, concentrating on a small cast of characters and on the increasingly deranged and desperate mental condition of its two major characters. Except for the relatively marginal presence of Carrie-Anne Moss as a fellow agent and former lover who knows Mackelway's history, the director locates his real scope and action in the frightening interior of a deteriorating psyche.
The script shows a rather different FBI agent from the usual movie investigator, a troubled, insecure, neurotic, hypersensitive man poised on the brink of a breakdown. Aaron Eckhart occasionally soars over the top in his depiction of Agent Mackelway's mental anguish, gobbling aspirins like gumdrops, straining and grimacing like a weightlifter, but generally handles the part with skill and conviction.
Ben Kingsley, however, dominates the picture, providing a center for its powerful emotion, lending a sense of pathos to a character who also seems at times almost as scary and vicious as the crook he played in Sexy Beast. His performance neatly encapsulates the success of Suspect Zero, an exciting and intense combination of style and content, and a very different take on the serial killer, that characteristic figure of our time.
Suspect Zero (R), starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss; directed by E. Elias Merhige. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.