"SUSPECT ZERO" knows from creepy . . . and compelling.
One thing's for certain: If you're going to sit through yet another iteration of the cop-vs.-serial-killer-who-leaves-taunting-calling-cards genre -- and with "Suspect Zero," let's face it, you are -- the last thing you want is to think too much, or to look at your watch, or to be able to detach yourself from the proceedings and step outside them, ever. Watching "Suspect Zero" makes all of those things very, very hard to do, and I have a blank notebook page to prove it.
Other than the film's title, and some scribbled notations indicating that the film's first few minutes included some naughty words, I took virtually no notes. I couldn't. I was too wrapped up in it, too swamped by its fevered, shivery mood, to stop and deconstruct it.
Part of the reason, certainly, is the cast, including Aaron Eckhart and Carrie-Anne Moss but led in its assault by a finely unhinged Ben Kingsley as Benjamin O'Ryan, the former-FBI-agent-turned-homicidal-maniac who lends the film its title (or does he?). As a man who gets to play both the mouse and the cat in this familiar game of cat and mouse, he's great, and his fierce on-screen performance (some of which consists of nothing but close-ups of his eye) is largely responsible for the intense gravitational pull the film exerts on our own eyeballs. Another reason is filmmaker E. Elias Merhige, who, in his making-of-"Nosferatu" drama, "Shadow of the Vampire" (the director's first foray into mainstream moviemaking), proved he knew his way around the dark corners of boogeyman-haunted nightmares.
Tom Mackelway (Eckhart) is a disgraced FBI agent (yes, I know, that's another cliche, but Merhige doesn't allow you to dwell on it too much). Sent in punishment from Dallas to the Bureau's Albuquerque field office -- an outpost so bush league there isn't even a Starbucks nearby -- Mackelway is soon knee-deep in the kind of bizarre case you occasionally read about in the papers but you mostly only see in the movies: An eyelid-less corpse has turned up in a car, parked precisely on the state line.
At this point, Mackelway's clueless. Well, not literally, since the crime scene is scattered with drawings, scraps of paper and bloody markings on the corpse bearing the killer's signature, a circle with a slash through it (zero, get it?). We, on the other hand, pretty much already know who done it, because it gets done in the chilling opening scene, in which Kingsley firmly establishes his hold on us.
Joined by Fran Kulok (Moss), a Dallas FBI agent with whom Mackelway used to, apparently, have a "thing" (I know, I know, we've seen this before, too), Mackelway is quickly swept up in the pursuit of O'Ryan, dubbed Suspect Zero.
Slowly, as the two draw closer, and as the bodies pile up (along with missing-person faxes on Mackelway's office floor), it becomes less clear who is the hunter and who is the hunted. Is O'Ryan -- a gifted (or cursed) psychic once trained as a "remote viewing" crime solver in a top-secret FBI program -- really Suspect Zero, the mother of all serial killers, and one who can't be profiled? Or is he, like Mackelway, merely looking for that guy, too?
The truth is that we're the real prey and that Merhige, working from a script by Zak Penn and Billy Ray, is the one who's reeling us in, with a devilishly alluring Kingsley as the bait.
Is the script conventional? Sure. Have we seen some of these characters and setups a hundred times before? Don't I know it.
Still, with its spooky atmosphere to spare and a riveting central performance by Kingsley, an actor who manages to elicit both terror and sympathy, I was able to forget all those things, basking in the pleasure of my own goose bumps. So, for an hour and a half, will you.
SUSPECT ZERO (R, 100 minutes) -- Contains violence, gore, obscenity, rape and brief nudity. Area theaters.