Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley struggle through floundering frights.

Screenplay Zero 

Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley struggle through floundering frights.

You know how fear is scary? Well, director E. Elias Merhige is into that, especially in his new serial-killer thriller, Suspect Zero. Absent, however, is the darkly comic malevolence the director cultivated in his successful and disquieting Shadow of the Vampire a few years ago, bulldozed out of the way by stock chills and a passé David Fincher fetish. Merhige is too talented to be dismissed as a wannabe, but here his gifts for clever angles and oogy feelings are tethered to genre redundancies and clunky storytelling. Looks great, less thrilling. I blame the screenwriters.

Let's rustle up Zak Penn (Inspector Gadget) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) and smack 'em a couple of times each with a newspaper: Bad screenwriters! No Oscar! Clearly they had some fun, stealing liberally from The Hitcher and The Silence of the Lambs, but a cherry-picked bucket of creep-outs does not a classic thriller make.

Our Clarice Starling this time is named Tom Mackelway, played by Aaron Eckhart as if he's wondering how soon he can flee the hot, uneasy locations. Conveniently, he's supposed to look uncomfortable and detached, because Tom is an FBI agent who has been booted from the Dallas bureau to teensy little Albuquerque because of a significant professional faux pas. He now suffers chronic migraines, is vaguely paranoid and -- as luck would have it -- gets to investigate a gruesome and narratively vital highway homicide mere minutes into his new job.

We've already met the carved-up stiff, a portly traveling salesman who favors a roadside eatery that's half Flo and half Sanford and Son. In the opening sequence, the man merely wants his coffee "topped off" but ends up with his eyelids lopped off, courtesy of Ben Kingsley. In real life, Kingsley is about as tall and threatening as a garden gnome, but, as evidenced in Sexy Beast, he relishes playing the psycho. If only li'l Gandhi's aggressive compensation tactics had somewhere to go besides a series of increasingly frustrating loopholes.

Tom, who is remarkably inept even for a government agent, needs moral support. Enter Carrie-Anne Moss (love-starved Matrix geeks may read that as they please) as the intriguingly named Fran Kulok, Tom's associate and former flame from the Dallas bureau. While Eckhart runs around panicking over Kingsley's connection to a string of gruesome murders, including one that cuts very close to home, Moss is basically forced to loiter with her patented grimly concerned expression. There's more passion in the movie's hideous and graphic rape scene than there is in the transplanted Texans' relationship, which says a few weird things about the filmmakers.

With any movie, thriller or otherwise, a competent, intriguing setup brings nervous tension. We're eager to see if the storytellers can keep us involved, close with a flourish, and send us out satisfied. This is where Suspect Zero stumbles. The title refers to the ultimate elusive killer, who leaves no clues and operates out of sheer malevolence. This concept is finally paid off in a way that's admittedly unusual but also surprisingly tepid, a great big shrug, capped by another glaring lift from Seven -- definitely murder by numbers.

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