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"Suspect Zero" slaughters the serial killer flick.

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The exhaustion of this kind of film is signaled by the labored premise: the possibility that a serial killer is out there on the prowl for serial killers. That's the idea that dawns on tortured G-man Thomas Mackelway, played by the talented Aaron Eckhart, an appealing cross between William Hurt and Peter Krause. Mackelway has problems. After kidnapping a suspect in an earlier case, he unaccountably manages to evade jail time and has merely been posted to the New Mexican sticks, where mutilated bodies start to pile up. In a further inexplicable fit of bureaucratic whimsy, the big boys at the FBI dispatch, of all people, his estranged girlfriend Fran (Carrie-Anne Moss of the "Matrix" franchise) to help him crack the case.

Will his career get back on track? Will he get the girl? So paltry is the characterization provided in the script by Zak Penn and Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass") that it's hard to care. This is a film in which characters angrily bark things like "Ya ever hear of evidentiary procedure?" and show up drenched with rain in the middle of the night at their beloved's door to mew, "I love you," and then scurry away. Fran and Mackelway's scenes have all the tension and chemistry of two piles of salt on a countertop.

Then there's the case itself, which involves something called "remote viewing," a procedure for psychic sleuthing that "the Army stole...from the Soviets." When he's not carving abstract art on the bodies of his victims, Kingsley's Benjamin O'Ryan sits rapt in the throes of extrasensory terrors, compelled to produce artful, pencilled renderings of one grisly crime scene after another, to the accompaniment of a tinny buzzing that will make you think someone in the theater neglected to turn off a cell phone.

The plot turns on the question of whether these are murders he wants to commit or prevent. At scenes of carnage, he leaves Mackelway clues subtle as highway signs as to his whereabouts, and when, at length, all is revealed, one can't help wondering why O'Ryan didn't just send Mackelway a certified letter or drop by the office.

Through it all, Merhige treats the laughable plot as if it were high existential drama. He smothers what might have been a solid B-picture in relentless art-house pretension. Disorienting close-ups abound. Landscapes are deeply washed in reds and yellows. You have to be hell-bent on pleasure to get much of it from this treatment.

You might enjoy a handful of beautiful shots of American vernacular architecture, or the sights and sounds that emerge as Kingsley, seemingly having a good time, chews up the scenery in his more frantic moments. At one point, relating the horrors he's experienced as the hardest-working remote viewer in the business, he pants, "We saw things men shouldn't see." It's a sentiment that people leaving this movie are likely to share. * S



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