Thin line between hero, villain unfolds in `Zero'


August 27, 2004|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It's 4 on a rainy morning at the All-American Diner on a deserted road outside Gallup, N.M. A bald, paunchy, amiable-looking restaurant supplies salesman (Kevin Chamberlin) is seated by a window, having a cup of coffee and reading a fishing magazine. He is jolted by the sudden appearance of an intense, sinister stranger (Ben Kingsley), who sits down opposite him and thrusts at him a clutch of drawings of mutilated corpses. Soon the salesman is rushing off to his car - but the stranger is already sitting in his back seat.

This is the scary, economically staged and potently atmospheric start of E. Elias Merhige's stunningly original thriller Suspect Zero.

Very soon it's clear that a serial killer is on a rampage in the Southwest, and FBI agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), a hotshot shifted from Dallas to Albuquerque as punishment, is swiftly in pursuit. The rampage escalates to the extent that his wary, no-nonsense former Dallas partner Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss) is sent to Albuquerque to back him up.

For all its inspired and idiosyncratic twists and turns, Suspect Zero unfolds with refreshing clarity within a genre plot. At first it looks as if no more will be demanded of Eckhart than to be the stalwart good guy in pursuit of the deranged genius bad guy, but Merhige demands of him the complexity and anguish he does of Kingsley, whose character may not be quite what he seems and ultimately may even prove a tragic figure.

Suspect Zero reveals the contagiousness of madness, of the potential interchangeableness of hero and villain - and, beyond that, paradoxical notions as to who the villain or villains may actually be, not just in this movie but in life. Merhige understands how exciting going to the edge of credibility can be without falling off and has the bravura talent and imagination needed to pull off the sheer, hurtling audacity of Suspect Zero .

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Suspect Zero

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley and Carrie-Anne Moss

Directed by E. Elias Merhige

Rated R (violence, language, nudity)

Released by Paramount

Time 95 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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