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‘Suspect Zero’ doesn’t add up

Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley  star in this serial-killer thriller. By John Hartl

Do the nation’s multiplexes — let alone the world — really need another serial-killer thriller?

The question is not easily answered by E. Elias Merhige’s “Suspect Zero,” which brings intelligence, a sense of mystery and a degree of filmmaking skill to the genre. Not to mention a superb cast. But the buildup is so overwrought and the twist ending is such a washout that you end up feeling cheated if not abused.

Ever since “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en,” it’s been pretty much understood that serial killers (at least in the movies) must be smart and inventively devious. Otherwise, they’re not likely to frighten anyone. For much of its length, “Suspect Zero” gives us a killer so ingenious that his motives seem impenetrable.

He certainly bedevils FBI agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), who can’t get a fix on a suspect as he surveys a seemingly unrelated series of murders and mutilations. A Colorado schoolteacher’s body is stuffed in a trunk. A middle-aged New Mexico salesman is stabbed to death. A vicious rapist is executed.

What could these murders have in common? And why does the killer keep contacting Mackelway, faxing him tantalizing clues, tempting him with information that broadly hints at his identity? The killer, who knows that Mackelway once tried to trap the rapist, seems to want to be caught, or at least to enjoy the thrill of sharing the same space with the man who is pursuing him.

The killer also appears to be psychic; how else could he anticipate so many of Mackelway’s moves? And there’s the possibility of a religious motivation, in messages like “God works in mysterious ways” and in the repeated mutilation of the victims’ eyes. Could this serial killer be pursuing other serial killers?

Mackelway quickly becomes obsessed with the case, which he shares with a partner (Carrie-Anne Moss) with whom he has a rocky history. When he’s suspended for his troubles and asked to take a psychological exam, alas, the script by Zak Penn (who wrote and directed the very funny new mockumentary “Incident at Loch Ness”) and Billy Ray (who wrote and directed last year’s excellent “Shattered Glass”) begins to feel generic. So do the final plot twists and the use of Ben Kingsley as an elusive character who seems to know too much. 

Kingsley’s early scenes, however, are quite riveting. He’s the chief reason for the movie’s most chilling moment: a fairground episode that mixes menace and merriment in the style of Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” Michael Chapman’s cinematography and Clint Mansell’s music lend an edginess to the movie that also helps the early scenes, and Moss and Eckhart do a convincing job of suggesting a couple with a history.

Merhige, who made the stylish and creepy “Shadow of the Vampire,” handles the limited relationships between his characters with ease. But they’re ultimately betrayed by a script that was extensively rewritten and apparently lost its bearings in the process.