Two particular scenes stayed with me after viewing this movie through to the credits, both featuring Ben Kingsley. In the first scene, in a fundamental Christian church, tears were swimming in the actor's eyes as he endured the presence of exalted voices and happy children. In the second scene he was at his desk, enduring a final remote viewing, his left hand flapping rapidly on the table as his right hand sketched portraits of bulls-eyes to locations of horror.
It's nearly impossible for most of us to accept the reality of a world in which serial killers rob children from their homes, torture, and kill them. It's even more difficult to immerse onself, emotionally into the details of that reality. Most of us would, in good health, want to avoid coming close to experiencing what a child or his killer would. Emotional survival can waver on retaining a distance from heinous situations.
In view of that instinctive need to distance from the severest types of pain, this unique film would have an inherently difficult time capturing viewers. I believe this might be why this film haunts like a wisp of smoke, yet almost seems ineffective as a work of art. After the film clicks down as done, the natural response is to get it out of mind.
Yet, given my background in and curiosity about the art of film, I wanted to understand why I felt this movie was excellently done, yet I had connected into it only superficially as it moved across the screen.
The essence of this film is to get into the mind of the killer, and indirectly, of the victims. To me, the movie seemed to portray that it's almost more overwhelming to get into the mind of the killer than into the mind of the victim.
This movie pushed beyond other psychic "profiler" types of stories. Part of the beyond had to do with the subtly on-target acting performance of the trilogy of main stars. Who could doubt the performance intensity of Kingsley and Eckhart giving variations on themes of the deepest types of manic obsession. Some have disparaged a seeming lack of commitment of emotional investment to the part played by Moss. I do not doubt the validity and subtle brilliance of her presentation, though I can see why astute observers would form that opinion. To me she was true to the character and served as a buffer, a balance to the intensity of the male roles, and I believe she did this in a manner on line with realism as well as artistic finesse. The main word which continues coming to mind, for which I search for a variety of synonyms, is "subtle."
When I began working for the Multnomah County Sheriff's office in the 70's, serving in a swing shift as a crime prevention officer, one of my job tasks was to read every burglary, rape, murder, and kidnaping report which came into the office, usually at a rate of several per day. Needless to say the initiation into the details of that world of crime was shocking, and shifted me into an intensely uncomfortable sense of environment as I drove 40 minutes each night after 11 pm from the county borders into the inner city of Portland, OR, to my home in an old, nice neighborhood bordered closely on all sides by some of the highest crime areas of the city.
Each evening around 7 pm I read those reports, one-by-one, with each in turn settled in front of my eyes, flat on a grey metal desk, the pages composed of the slick copy paper used in the 70's. The duty police officers' hand-written details of the accounts varied in style, but were set into identical fill-in-the-blank formats. The narrative. The details. The narrative detail was the heart of the report, and it was clear that each detail had been hand written with clarity, a rigid focus taught at the police academy; and the subtle emotional attachment bled through the ink with a control which rendered crisp the line-edges of each letter.
It took a few months for me to begin functioning without a tight jitter to my emotions and constant observations of my environment, especially driving home at night.
I mention the above personal experience so that you will know that my observations of SUSPECT ZERO do not arrive from the eyes and soul of a person without a certain amount of awareness of the reality of the world of crime, the criminal mind, and valid, intensified attempts to achieve criminal justice.
Though married to a deputy sheriff for 8 years, my short career in police work, spanning only a few years through my late 20's, went well beyond what I've described above, but that is enough for the purposes of this review backing up my awareness of the nearly silent scream of the essence of this exquisite film, a silent plea brought to pitch in the tears growing to an ocean of pain in Kingsley's eyes in the church scene, and the nervous flapping of his hand on the desk, which grew steadily more rapid and intense as he sweat "blood" through his final viewing.
As a reviewer has clearly indicated, the director's (E. Elias Merhige) commentary at the conclusion of the movie exposes the not quite obvious, underlying perfection of the quiet, sheer, subtle skill which went into the production and finishing of this film. As stated above, I believe that the skill and perfection of this product is less obvious than many of its caliber, due partly at least to the natural and automatic emotional distancing necessary for viewers with remote's in hand.
Of course, beyond the artistic excellence, the plotting is brilliant, with its adherence to the title, SUSPECT ZERO; as is the play on seeing through a mirror darkly of a serial killer hunting and executing other serial killers, coming closer and closer to the most heinous of the genre.
Other parts of my background came into play in enhancing my ability to see the skeletal foundation of this film's essential effectiveness. In a 5 week, intense training course at Chicago's O'Hare airport as a flight attendant for United Airlines in 1968, trainees were privy to airline studies which gave amazing insight into the psychological gestalt of passengers at the culmination of a no-landing-gear, belly-landing, screeching metal on concrete, or other type of plane crash situation. Reportedly, most passengers go into a type of shock which removes them from their immediate situation. Reported comments reveal the extent of psychological removal, as many of them explore compassion felt for, "...those poor people on that crashed airplane." Passengers in the downed and damaged plane become unequivocally unaware that they are those "poor people."
The attendants are taught the necessity of screaming at and hitting some of the passengers to remove the shock barrier and initiate the duty of getting the passengers out of the plane to safety.
However, safety is relative if the crash has occurred in an ocean of shark infested waters, due to the fact that sharks are drawn to the concussion of the crash, as rapidly and voraciously as they are to blood seeping into the circular streams of rippling water.
Relating this information to the reality of serial killers repeatedly targeting children, the fact blessedly remains that the closer a person gets to the core of physically unavoidable insanity and torture, the more intensely implemented is the rescue of the psyche defense system, the graduated sense of "removal." This seemed to happen to my viewing of in this film, and as stated, I believe this is due to the film's hitting way closer to "home" than most movies exploring the remote viewing theme, rather than any lack in the plotting, directive, or acting technique.
Which brings me to another piece of my background which I believe may have elevated my analysis of the excellence of this movie. As a high school English teacher in Portland (prior to my short career in criminal justice), I taught a class called the Language of Film, or Filmic Statement. In this 5 week course, students wrote, designed, and implemented 3 minute films (Super 8 mm with separate but synchronized cassette tapes for sound track) and were allowed a class conclusion of a whole school assembly of an Academy Awards ceremony.
In that class the language of film was analyzed, basing from the choice and design of timing, distance, angle, and focus of each short shot (those new to the art are usually surprised that most camera shots are under 10 seconds long). Series of very short shots of varying angles, distances, and framing of subjects are used to direct and produce drama via various intricate techniques initiated from the eye of the camera. Quite a lot goes into the making of a film before and beyond directing actors to "face-the-good-side" to the camera and emote, in accordance to the scene and theme of the plot.
If you want to "see" these techniques in play, replay the two scenes I've mentioned and take time to observe how often short (few-seconds-in-length) shots cut, and change angle, direction, and frame-of-focus in a "simple" scene featuring the tearing eyes of Kingsley, or his hand flapping on the desk table. Then, you might replay again, to note the sequence of brevity or length of a series of shots, with longer shots beginning to build tension by becoming shorter and shorter, etc., with variations of that use of timing creating a filmic rhythm rarely noticed under or beyond the emotion created by its dramatic effect.
A third scene has been etched into my mind from SUSPECT ZERO. It was the wrestling struggle between Suspect Zero and Eckhart. The fight was subtly effective in being the opposite of what might have been expected. It was not an intensely drawn out battle of kicks, slugs, and slams, but a quiet wrestling, with the muscle-and-bone-bodies of good and evil prone on the ground, entwined like worms or snakes, with the killer subdued rapidly, almost easily, like he had nothing of substance, not even a force of evil.
For me, the key of a movie's success is how a drama feels during viewing, and if/how it lingers after the credits have rolled down screen, after the DVD player is abandoned, and reality again becomes the focus as it re-opens its ongoing scenes to the next Walkabout of unknown design.
According to the very well done reviews here, the wide screen version of the DVD includes a commentary by the director, .... The used VHS version I saw did not have that commentary.
With Respect for Healing Value of Art,
Linda G. Shelnutt