The Ravages of Time: Suspect Zero (2004)

Matty investigates a passable serial killer thriller with a long, troubled making.

On paper, SUSPECT ZERO is another gloomy Se7en (1995) cash-in. But the crux of its plot rests upon trying to find order in chaos — a fitting theme considering the film itself.

Starting life as a spec script by Last Action Hero (1992) co-scribe (and, later, X-Men and Avengers series regular) Zak Penn, Suspect Zero was purchased by Universal for a cool $750K in May 1995 as industry buzz for New Line’s then-upcoming Se7en was building. At the time Penn’s script was a hot property. Sadly it soon fell into development hell, with Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Ben Affleck, Paul Schrader, and various combinations thereof all attached at one point or another. Paramount and German company Intermedia picked up the project in turnaround, and when Suspect Zero finally went before cameras in August 2002, only Cruise remained (and even then only as an uncredited producer) [1] and Penn’s initial draft had been massively overhauled by Billy Ray (Color of Night (1994)) and director E. Elias Merhige. 

The finished article bears the scars of a painful, protracted creation. Piecemeal and unfocused, Ben Kingsley’s character is Merhige’s avatar: watching Suspect Zero leaves you with the unshakable feeling that, like Sir Ben’s killer of killers — a kind of psychic, proto-Dexter — the helmer is desperately trying to make sense of things that might just be senseless to begin with. Narrative elements come and go. Some click, some don’t. In the former camp, Penn’s idea of a ‘suspect zero’ — a single person being responsible for most of America’s unsolved murders — is as frightening and plausible as it is fanciful and improbable; and Merhige keeping the titular perp hidden behind the wheel of a big black truck for much of the film’s duration affords it a pleasingly gimmick-y air of menace in the Duel (1971) and Joy Ride (2001) mode. The less said about the fax machine claptrap, though, and the cheesy ‘remote viewing’ stuff Ray and Merhige shoehorn in the better.  

On an aesthetic and tonal level, Suspect Zero is magnificent. Shot in and around New Mexico, the heat of the Cactus State is contrasted with the film’s bone-freezing mood. A night-set prologue aside, the bulk of Suspect Zero unfolds in harsh daylight — but there’s an oppressive and impressionistic quality to its sun-soaked visuals those familiar with Merhige’s more acclaimed works, experimental art-shocker Begotten (1990) and kooky roman-à-clef Shadow of the Vampire (2000), will spot straight away. ‘Nightmare logic’ is a strange and, in the age of A24 and — urgh — ‘elevated horror’, often overused term. However, such an epithet applies to Suspect Zero. While majorly flawed and dangerously teetering on the edge of pretension, this scrappy little chiller succeeds insofar as it genuinely feels as if you’re being swallowed by a bad dream. Aloof and nihilistic and dripping with a palpable sense of dread, Merhige presents the world of Suspect Zero as a dark, miserable place; a black hole of despair apparently governed by a kind of eerie cosmic force. The deliberate, highly mannered nature of Aaron Eckhart and Carrie-Anne Moss’ performances as the cops on the case — hunting both Kingsley and the eponymous killing machine — add to the bubbling weirdness.

Ravaged by the press and bombing at the U.S. box office upon its release in summer ‘04 (the film made $11million against a $27million budget), Suspect Zero was dumped straight-to-DVD here in the U.K. by Sony on 2nd May 2005.

USA/UK/Germany ● 2004 ● Thriller ● 96mins

Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss ● Dir. E. Elias Merhige Wri. Zak Penn and Billy Ray

[1] Incidentally, Cruise’s cousin, William Mapother, appears in the cast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s