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Film / Suspect Zero

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To catch a serial killer, think what he thinks, see what he sees.

Suspect Zero is a psychological thriller directed by E. Elias Merhige, starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, and Carrie-Anne Moss. The film was released in the United States in 2004 by Paramount Pictures.

Thomas Mackelway (Eckhart), a formerly decorated agent who operated out of the Dallas regional division of the FBI, has stirred up controversy by ignoring extradition law in order to bring a suspected serial killer back from Mexico to stand trial... in the process both losing his position and having the killer get Off on a Technicality. Months later, Agent Mackelway has been "sent to the minors" by being transferred to a quiet division in New Mexico. The quiet doesn't last long, as on the day he arrives, he receives a strange fax consisting of several missing persons files. Before he can determine what the fax means or who sent it, he is called out on his first case since his transfer. A salesman from southern New Mexico has been murdered and his body left directly on the state border, placing the case under federal jurisdiction. A quick glance at the victim's body reveals that this is far more than a robbery-homicide... as after he was stabbed to death, the killer took the time to remove one of the victim's eye-lids.

As the investigation continues and more bodies are discovered, each missing an eyelid and left with a small piece of paper on which only the number zero is drawn, it quickly becomes apparent that the FBI has a serial killer on their hands. With each new victim, more and more faxes addressed to Mackelway are received at headquarters, not only revealing further missing persons, but also information about the recent murders, newspaper articles detailing Mackelway's past work... and, chillingly, hand-drawn images depicting Mackelway as he investigated a crime scene mere hours before. Agent Mackelway soon realizes that the faxes are being sent by the killer, a man identifying himself as "O'Ryan" (Kingsley.) Together with Agent Fran Kulok (Moss), his former partner from the Texas branch, Mackelway vows to find O'Ryan and put a stop to the killings once and for all... but first, he must figure out why O'Ryan is so obsessed with his past, and what the serial killer truly hopes to accomplish in taunting Mackelway to solve the case.

This work contains examples of:

  • Anti-Villain: O'Ryan. He's a ruthless Serial-Killer Killer with few qualms about getting violent with Mackelway and threatening his life, but really, he just wants to put an end to Suspect Zero's reign of terror.
  • Bittersweet Ending: O'Ryan and Mackelway are able to track down Suspect Zero and kill him, ending his reign of terror once and for all and saving his final victim in the process, but as Mackelway points out to O'Ryan they haven't defeated evil, and there are still countless serial killers at large, they only stopped one of them. When O'Ryan begs for a Mercy Kill, unable to sleep without seeing all the victims any longer, the burden of his psychic powers too great, Mackelway refuses, so O'Ryan commits Suicide by Cop by trying to attack him, and is gunned down by Agent Kulok, dying in Mackelway's arms while thanking him.
  • Blessed with Suck: O'Ryan has psychic powers he uses for remote viewing for the FBI in a covert project called Icarus to hunt for serial killers, but is plagued by traumatic images behind the serial killers eyes of their many victims in their dying moments. It steadily drove him mad and turned him into a Serial-Killer Killer, while the others like him in his FBI group with the same powers also either ended up insane or dead. Ultimately he gets himself killed so he can finally sleep without seeing all the victims.
  • Detective Drama
  • Dies Wide Open: O'Ryan's victims are all found with at least one eye open. Of course, they had help with that since their killer removed their eyelids.
  • Hollywood Law: Mackelway retrieving a suspected serial killer illegally in Mexico would not result in him going free, unless he also somehow tainted evidence they needed to hold him (which isn't shown). In the 1800s the US Supreme Court ruled the manner of a suspect's delivery into custody was irrelevant regarding whether they could be tried. On the other hand, he might be disciplined or fired for this, and even charged with kidnapping by Mexican officials.
  • Horrifying the Horror: O'Ryan enjoys doing this to the many serial killers he tracks down, intimidating and confronting them with their crimes, before he kills them.
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!: O'Ryan ultimately wishes to drive Mackelway to kill him, in an effort to force Mackelway down the path to taking over his mission as a Serial-Killer Killer.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Purposefully averted by O'Ryan, who left the body of the first victim the FBI found exactly on the state line in order to make the case fall directly under their jurisdiction.
  • The Killer Becomes the Killed: Both for O'Ryan and his chosen victims.
  • Mad Oracle: Long term use of the remote viewing abilities O'Ryan's former unit is said to have possessed, combined with the lack of an "off" switch for the abilities themselves, is shown to lead to severe mental breakdowns. Many among the unit eventually were Driven to Suicide, or suffered psychotic breaks.
  • Psychic Powers: O'Ryan claims he was trained by the FBI to perform "remote viewing", a method to link his mind with his future victims to see what they see. This is how he determines who his next victims will be and where to find them. It is later revealed that Mackelway has "the gift" as well.
  • Room Full of Crazy: A couple. First was the room that O'Ryan lived in with the floor covered in zeros; then there's the room with a disturbing drawing behind the wallpaper.
  • Serial-Killer Killer: O'Ryan chooses his victims because they are themselves serial killers, which he learns through his remote viewing ability. His quest in life is to find Suspect Zero, who he believes has killed hundreds of victims all across the country without being detected. The alternate ending sees Mackelway become one himself.
  • Silent Antagonist: Once Mackelway and O'Ryan finally catch up with Suspect Zero, he never speaks a single word.
  • Suicide by Cop: At the end, O'Ryan pleads with Mackelway to kill him, because he tires of being tormented by the images of the victims of Suspect Zero. When Mackelway refuses, O'Ryan forces his hand by lunging at him with his knife.
  • Title Drop: Throughout O'Ryan's cryptic communications, "Suspect Zero" is often mentioned. Mackelway believes that O'Ryan is referring to himself, and his conclusion is reinforced by the walls and floors of the former killer's home being covered in the same 0 symbols that were left behind at the initial crime scenes. It turns out that Suspect Zero is someone else, a serial killer whose murders have never been detected.
  • Tragic Hero: O'Ryan is a former FBI agent with psychic powers he used for remote viewing to find and catch serial killers. Unfortunately his powers and seeing the things he did through them steadily drove him and the others like him insane, with him becoming a vigilante hunter of serial killers, attempting to track down and kill the worst of them, Suspect Zero. Ultimately he succeeds, but is Driven to Suicide afterwards.
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: After O'Ryan ambushes Mackelway at a county fair, he wakes up some time later bound on the floor of the killer's apartment, where a smiling O'Ryan casually threatens to torture him to death.