When Dallas FBI Agent Thomas Mackelway violates serial killer Raymond Starkey's civil rights during an unorthodox arrest, Starkey goes free and Mackelway is demoted to a remote branch of the agency in Albuquerque. His first day on the job, Mackelway investigates the murder of a traveling salesman Harold Speck, which turns out to be the first of three seemingly random killings. Or perhaps they are not random at all; the last to die is Mackelway's nemesis, Raymond Starkey. The assignment consumes him. His past mistakes haunt him. His head throbs constantly as he tries to find the link between the victims that will lead him to their killer. The case becomes increasingly gruesome and patently personal. This does not go unnoticed by his unflappable partner Fran Kulok, who knows of Mackelway's past and the demons that afflict him. Like Mackelway, she becomes drawn into the labyrinth of chilling clues, all of which point to the enigmatic Benjamin O'Ryan. O'Ryan clearly has a connection to the murders, a connection he flaunts; quite possibly, he may also harbor a sinister link to Mackelway.
Finally, a serial killer movie so preposterous, so garnished with accidental laugh lines and absent essential narrative logic it may actually put a permanent kibosh on this tediously overworked crime subgenre. Here's hoping, at any rate. Directed with self-conscious hothouse flair by E. Elias Merhige, from a puzzler of a screenplay credited to Zak Penn and Billy Ray, "Suspect Zero" involves a serial killer who's doing away with other serial killers and the disgraced F.B.I. agent who refuses to let this meta-murder madness go unpunished. Think "Seven" minus the talent. Soon after the agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart) lands in the F.B.I.'s Albuquerque bureau, he discovers a man's mutilated body carefully arranged amid the cacti and sand. One thing leads to another leads to a halfway house where twitchy Benjamin O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley) scratches out the kind of eerily beautiful artwork so beloved of movie sociopaths. As Mackelway tracks O'Ryan, it soon appears that the hunter and the hunted may be on the same horrific page even if the director and the screenwriters are not. — Manohla Dargis
2004-08-27 | Manohla Dargis | Read the New York Times Review of Suspect Zero