Suspect Zero (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The basic premise of the film is not too difficult to describe for those who know films. Imagine a re-make of SE7EN in which John Doe kills people not because of the imagined "sins" they have committed, but because they have committed crimes of unimaginable magnitude, like the serial killing of lost children. As in SE7EN, we have two cops chasing after a criminal who is deranged but also much smarter than they are. As in SE7EN, the criminal leaves behind convoluted or cryptic clues that lead the cops to other victims or to himself. As in SE7EN, the cops discover grisly details by using flashlights in dark rooms. As in SE7EN, the psychotic criminal mastermind is played by a distinguished actor (in this case Sir Ben "Gandhi" Kingsley).

Simple enough. Our master criminal seems to be the garden-variety movie psycho when we see him assembling long lists of seemingly random numbers and bizarre sketches of brutal crimes, but he differs from the guy in SE7EN in two critical ways.

First, he is not merely smart, but also has some super-human powers. He is one of five people who were recruited by the FBI in a top secret program to harness the power of ESP in apprehending serial killers. You never heard of it? Hey, I told you it was top secret. In fact, Gandhi has more than simple psychic abilities. We see that he seems to be able to place some thoughts into the mind of a receptive FBI guy, and in a few instances we see that his charcoal sketches predict the future. This makes the premise much harder to buy into than SE7EN's. In the Fincher movie, we only had to believe in a crazy guy who was very smart. Not that much of a stretch. In this movie, we had to believe in all sorts of pseudo-science and supernatural humbug which took Suspect Zero out of the plane of grotesque crime thrillers and into horror film territory.

Second, our killer may be crazy, but he is a genuine do-gooder who is demonstrably helping humanity. After all, he is a serial killer of serial killers. If you think about it, we probably could use more guys like this. One of the FBI guys doesn't even want to bring him in, and the baddie, in turn, leads that agent to the all-time career plum - a single-handed collar of the ultimate serial killer, a guy who has kidnapped, tortured, and killed hundreds of innocent children.

Frankly, the film gets a bit convoluted around the middle of the film. There are regular serial killers, then the master serial killer called Suspect Zero, then the serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Even with a straightforward narrative style this film could have been confusing, but as told here, with all sorts of gimmicky shifts in POV represented by different types of non-traditional visuals (certain scenes are in red and white, other scenes are deliberately grainy), it could get irritating. The camera lingers on demented drawings, or on visions inside Gandhi's head, or maybe inside the FBI agent's head. There are gothic camera angles, purposely underlit scenes, fast cuts, surreal visions, and just a whole lot of stylized stuff which didn't advance the film forward. There were a lot of times when my mind was wandering because of the static narrative. I didn't really snap in and start to get involved until the film was down to its last ten minutes. In other words, the story offers none of the traditional pleasure of a crime mystery, of solving the crime along with the detectives, because everything is deliberately obfuscated by a baffling use of a technique so hip and aloof that it simply forces the audience to wait until everything is explained. I guess they call this "over-directing" in film school. I'm now pretty sure that I understand who was killing whom and why, but I was confused as the story unfolded. That is to say I was confused when I wasn't just plain bored.

I'm still confused on some details.

  • Suspect Zero's bodies. I thought for some reason that the whole idea behind suspect zero was that his method caused the bodies to be scattered through the USA in completely random places with no ties to him and no logical connection to the place where they lived/ At the end of the movie, however, they all seemed to be buried on his farm in offbeat graves marked like Indian burial mounds. It was a powerful and spooky image, but something rang false about it. It wasn't random. I didn't think the film was worth watching again, so maybe I made a mistake in following the plot.
  • Suspect Zero's apprehension. I'm not completely sure why Ben Kingsley wanted the FBI to bring in the master serial killer. With all the other serial killers, Kingsley was perfectly content to do the work himself. I guess that he was giving a career back to the disgraced FBI agent in the hope that the agent would, in turn, kill him and release him from the suffering of a life which took place inside the heads of serial murderers. I guess. Frankly, I'm not clear on this.
  • The agent's future. It seems that the disgraced FBI agent (Aaron Eckhart) is the same kind of super-psychic as Gandhi, although his ability is not yet full developed. Is this good or bad? Will that, in turn, make him just as crazy as Gandhi in time, or will he now become an FBI super-stud?
  • What the hell was Carrie-Anne Moss doing in this film? There was an unconvincing explanation for her presence in the film in the first place. The film starts with the disgraced agent demoted from Dallas to Albuquerque because he failed to follow procedure. Back at the time of that failed collar, he had been teamed with a female agent who was also his lover. All of a sudden, the female agent turns up in Albuquerque to join him on his latest case. Why would the agency do that? They had a sour romantic history and had botched their last job together! So I didn't believe the justification for Carrie-Anne's presence in New Mexico in the first place, but then once she arrived, she served absolutely no purpose. She did comment once in a while that the other agent was acting illogically, but the bureau chief was already tending to that responsibility, so Carrie's comments were redundant. The love story was never developed, which was just as well, since there was no good way to fit it into the film. If the script had completely cut the female agent from the picture, it would have lost absolutely nothing except one more unnecessary sub-plot in an already muddled script.

You may not know that this film is an important contributor to film history, at least in an indirect way. The original script by Zak Penn (X2) was really the talk of the town back in the mid nineties when it was the object of a studio bidding war. Universal bought it for some serious cash and Tom Cruise wanted to star in it. In fact, this is the very film Cruise was going to do when Kubrick talked him into donating the next two years of his life to Eyes Wide Shut. Cruise still liked the script well enough to agree to produce the film, although it languished in production limbo for years. At various times, the Hollywood rumor mill reported that some real heavyweights like Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) did rewrites. Ain't It Cool News reported that Ben Affleck was asked to do a re-write (remember that in the late nineties Affleck was a struggling actor with a screenwriting Oscar). AICN's version of the story was that Affleck looked at the project and said he would agree to star and co-produce, but that there was no need to do a re-write if Penn's original script was used! AICN's Moriarty also read Penn's script and agreed with Affleck, so two more guys seemed to jump on the bandwagon which should have departed four years earlier when Penn's original version had been one of the hottest scripts in town.

Frankly, I'm fuzzy on the details of the story after that. Tom Cruise is still listed as the executive producer, and the only screenwriting credits go to Zak Penn and Billy Ray. If Penn's original script was so good, it did not manage to emerge unscathed from the effects of Ray's rewrites and the highly stylized direction. The final film is mediocre at best, despite a substantial $27 million production budget. The producers were obviously well aware of the film's problems, because after waiting for seven years to film the movie, they waited another two years before releasing it. The script was sold in May of 1995, the re-written film was shot in mid-2002, and the final product finally appeared on 1,500 movie screens in August of 2004, at which time it debuted with a three million dollar weekend, and disappeared soon thereafter.

This film had me stopping the DVD constantly to eat or to work on something else. It was just boring and meandering. Many talented people tried but could not make a good film from this material.

And yet there is a very profound ethical dilemma buried in here - a do-gooder genius is identifying and exterminating the worst killers in our midst, killers that are eluding mainstream law enforcement, but he is doing it outside the law with bizarre ceremonial murders. Do we really want our law enforcement officers to work hard to bring that guy to justice? It's an interesting premise.

I can't help thinking that there was a good film buried somewhere deep inside of it ...

 ... perhaps in that neglected original script?

'Tis a mystery to me. because if Penn's script was so good in the first place, why did so many people keep insisting on rewrites before it could get produced? Subsumed within that major issue is the question of why anyone was willing to commit $27 million to the script in its current condition, because it had so many obvious problems (the completely unnecessary Carrie-Anne Moss character, for example. Moss must have wondered what the hell she was doing in the movie.)

SIDEBAR: If you are really a film buff, you may be interested in this: Paul Shrader's unproduced version of the script.



  • Commentary by Director E. Elias Merhige
  • 4-Part Featurette
  • Remote Viewing Demonstration
  • Alternate Ending with Optional Director Commentary


There is a very brief topless scene in which Gandhi prevents a serial killer from completing the murder of a female victim (Chloe Russell).

There are also some drawings and photos of grotesque crime scenes. There is some fleeting nudity pictured in these representations.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert 2/4.

The People Vote ...

  • Yahoo voters score it C+. This link also includes more than eight minutes from the film.

  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $27 million for production, and the distribution/advertising costs must have exceeded $10 million. It did only eight million at the box office, despite a 1500 theater roll-out.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C-. Some excellent performers and glitzy direction could not cobble a good film from a muddled treatment. Oh, yeah, some of it looks very cool, but by the time it was half over, the highly stylized direction was getting in the way of the narrative, and I had to fight off sleep.

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