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That empty feeling

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Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley play murder investigators saddled with goofy genre conventions, maddening psychic ability, and an ambiguous mathematical symbol, in Suspect Zero.

Serial killers plus 'X-Files' equals less than expected

It is a dark and stormy night. A jumpy fat man sits in a diner booth, minding his own business. Silhouetted in the front door is an oddly familiar figure, plucked out of context and shown in the most ominous light. It's Gandhi the Serial Killer! And sadly, it isn't funny.

E. Elias Merhige's last film, Shadow of the Vampire, combined two things - dry horror and weird, winking humor - in such an organic and idiosyncratic way that both halves worked better than they should have. For Suspect Zero, which is clearly aimed at a wider audience, he dispenses with the unconventional humor, revealing how shaky his horror story really is.

While the film plays out like a standard FBI procedural, it revolves around an X-Files-style premise: Ben Kingsley has been trained by the government as a "remote viewer," a sort of supernatural detective who can see crime scenes without visiting them. The Army stole this technique from the Soviets, the movie tells us, and the Bureau stole it from them. Unfortunately, the remote viewers tend to be driven crazy by all the horrible stuff they see.

"Remote viewing" is as much a boon to a director of horror movies, it seems, as it is to law enforcement: It's an excuse to indulge in contemporary clichés like the mysterious figure who leaves a gallery's worth of obsessive drawings and collages in his wake, scrawled in charcoal and accented with obscure rants. It also allows Kingsley to exercise the extreme end of his acting range; at times here - as when he sarcastically says of one particularly gruesome drawing, "This one's my FAVORITE!" - you might mistake him for Al Pacino in one of his "Wild Al" moments.

Later, Kingsley gets to reenact a story that has been told at every junior high slumber party since the dawn of junior high: It's about a guy in a car who thinks he's being followed ... but his pursuer is already in the back seat!

Suspect Zero
Dir. E. Elias Merhige; writ. Zak Penn, Billy Ray; feat. Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss, Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlin (R)
Merhige obviously wants to do something artful with the hokey screenplay he's been given. His frame runs over with doom and gloom, he loves turning the camera upside-down, and he frequently cuts away to distorted "remote viewing" scenes that don't feel as derivative as they would read on paper. But there are too few scares here to justify all the atmosphere.

There is some gore, though. As Aaron Eckhart and Carrie-Anne Moss (in the Mulder and Scully roles) follow a string of killings, they turn up bodies whose eyelids have been cut off. Eckhart, who knows that the killer is sending him messages, says this means "He wants me to see through his eyes" - and he proceeds to go off the rails in a pretty predictable way, talking to himself and breaking protocol just like he did on the fumbled investigation that got him reassigned to this podunk desert town.

The bodies have a symbol cut into them, the bisected circle seen on the movie poster. Eckhart comes to see this as a zero, a hint to the killer's identity, but if he'd taken any math in his fancy federal training, he'd know it was closer to the symbol for "empty set," a term suggesting that no solutions exist.

Merhige's film eventually provides solutions, but they aren't very satisfying. Mood and style only carry a film so far, especially when it's weighted down by as many goofy genre conventions as this ambitious but underwhelming film. •

By John DeFore


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