Suspect Zero Review
Prior to Suspect Zero, E. Elias Merhige directed Shadow of a Vampire, a flawed re-imagining of the making of Murnau’s Nosferatu : eine Symphonie des Grauens that never once bowed to popular tastes. This new work, however, is firmly within the serial killer genre - one which has never struggled in attaining audiences - and is also making its UK debut on the home video market. Which prompts the question: has Merhige produced too weird a movie for a cinema crowd, or is it simply that the finished work is too poor?
The answer is a bit of both. Merhige remains a distinctive director, but is hampered by a script that is only halfway successful. The central conceit - as with Shadow of a Vampire - is an intriguing one, involving an undetectable serial killer (because he leaves no discernible pattern of behaviour) and remote viewing straight out of a Jon Ronson documentary, though here played completely straight. Likewise the plotting is busy enough to keep the viewer intrigued and, more importantly, guessing. (as such I won’t reveal too much for fear of spoilers, and be warned that the trailer is full of them.) Yet it’s also a script riddled with contrivances and the most hackneyed of devices. Ben Kingsley often feels more like a plot function than a character in his own right. Similarly, Carrie-Anne Moss is given the thankless role of simply being there to allow Aaron Eckhart’s FBI hero a little extra depth. Moreover, there are the usual red herrings, a character who pops up at the midway point solely to explain away the title and what has been going on up until that exact moment, plus some truly thudding dialogue that only serves to heighten Suspect Zero’s overall familiarity - “I’ve been having those dreams again”; “I’m a stickler for procedure” - whilst pointing out the blindingly obvious.
Given such handicaps the actors can merely try their best thereby prompting Merhige to take the film into his own hands. There is the temptation to assume that he is merely slumming it in such a genre, yet his name amongst the producers’ credits suggests otherwise. Indeed, such a role was perhaps undertaken to ensure final cut and Suspect Zero does see his voice intact, as it were. The small town underbelly and gifted-yet-troubled psycho-catcher are largely overused devices (see much of David Lynch’s work for the former and everything from Michael Mann’s Manhunter to ITV’s Wire in the Blood for the latter) and Merhige rightfully declines the attempt to cast them in a different light. Instead he uses the remote viewing component as his jumping off point and uses it to infuse the picture with a jittery, paranoid edge. The result is an aural and visual tour de force that owes little to conventional methods. Kingsley’s character is introduced via an upside down shot whilst there’s intriguing use of red tinting and ultra-grainy stock which makes the film, at times, resemble a David Anderson animation. What’s important here is that such devices appear justified so that we never get the impression of Merhige merely showing off. Yet at the same time he never appears tied down by a strict set of visual rules meaning that Suspect Zero feels continually adventurous. Coupled with central narrative concepts it results in interesting work, even if it is hampered by some shoddy writing.
The most immediate aspect of Suspect Zero’s presentation quality is just how visibly grainy and dingy the print is. In normal circumstances this would appear to be an error in the disc’s manufacture, yet given Merhige’s obvious concentration of the visual side I can only presume (and note that I am only presuming) that such qualities are intentional. After all it does seem unlikely that a major company such as Columbia would issue one of their newer releases in such a fashion if the look were not intentional. Indeed, they’ve still presented the film with an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.77:1) and DD5.1 sound mix. The latter aspect is far easier to judge and impresses throughout. Merhige’s intricate sound design is ably captured adding immeasurably to the film overall. Sadly there are few extras to do likewise, these amounting solely to the spoiler-ridden theatrical trailer plus promos for various other Columbia releases.