Now on VOD, Zeros and ones is a pandemic thriller for the art of Abel Ferrara, the certified nut behind the infamous’ 90s indie staple Bad lieutenant. It introduces Ethan Hawke as an American soldier-videographer AND his twin brother anarchist / communist / terrorist / pick an -ist (as long as he’s not fascist), the first on a mission in locked Rome, and the last imprisoned in the good. old US from A. Deducing what Ferrara has to say might be a fool’s task, so maybe he’ll put himself in a good mood for those 86 minutes.
The essential: We open up to a close-up of Hawke’s face, posing as Ethan Hawke. The movie hasn’t started yet – it provides a kind introduction in which it points out that Ferrara isn’t giving us anything “didactic” from a distance regarding the current Covid era, which may be an obvious statement, considering the image of a crying and naked Harvey Keitel is forever etched in our memories.
Let’s move on to the narrative at hand: Rome. 2020. MY KINGDOM FOR DECENT LIGHTING. Each scene is a squint in a grainy tone. A lonely subway train enters Rome and Hawke’s character JJ disembarks, walking through the train station and abandoned streets. He goes home, at least I think it’s his home, washes his hands, chats with a friend or an agent via Zoom, leaves, walks a bit, gets checked by a soldier, jumps into a Jeep, receives vague instructions from a superior – “This is the news of the world”, “film it to believe it” – and sets off with a video camera in hand. It’s night. And even though it’s not night, it’s still As night in this movie.
He runs into his brother’s wife and daughter, who wake up crying. He has a sparkling conversation with the little girl: “What are you dreaming about?” Pisces? ”She doesn’t respond, perhaps because he’s pretty much the opposite of warm and fun. Next stop, a vague and unidentifiable place – the movie is chock full of them – for white powder drugs and a glimpse of a tablet computer, which houses a disturbing video of his brother being shot dead with serum and interrogated. Next, he chats with a homeless man whose cardboard box looks like a coffin in an aerial shot; visits a ward room Muslim prayer; joins two other soldiers to film them waterboarding on a boxer; goes to church so a nun can deliver a cryptic dialogue. There’s more going on here, including a weird scene with Russians and some awkward fake CGI blasts on Roman monuments. Put it all together and what you get? A whole bunch of hell.
What movies will this remind you of? : I don’t know if this impenetrable bullshit is better than the exploitationist film Covid produced by Michael Bay Songbird. If so, then hardly.
Performances to watch: Hawke has had a strange career, ranging from the sublime (Childhood, the Before trilogy) with intense intensity (Training day, First reformed) to pretentious rambling (You’re here, Great expectations). Guess which of the three this movie belongs to?
Memorable dialogue: “Jesus was just another soldier. Another casualty of war. But on which side? – JJ, in voiceover, proving that he is the life of every party
Gender and skin: Dark, grainy images (of course) of two scantily clad women kissing.
Our opinion : I caught myself dreaming about things while watching Zeros and ones. Things like fish! The film is incomprehensible, ugly to watch and totally devoid of humor, which is not a nice way to say that it is “difficult”. Ferrara mixes some of her favorite stuff – sex, violence, religion, sexy violence against religion – into a big pot of existential sadness from the start of Covid, and all we can do is accept it as some kind of play. ‘skanky, dark and wet mood and everyone is close enough to the camera that we can smell their pits. Perhaps it goes without saying that mass death and isolation linger silently at the edges of the plot, which otherwise requires interpretation. Good luck with that.
Of course, this is all intentional. Ferrara has a rep as a provocateur, so knock yourself out trying to extract choppy political metaphors from the rag of stern Americans and laughing Russians passing each other in the skeevy Roman metro, sometimes emerging on the street to spin the Vatican kablooey. I’m sure there are nuances here in the grainy, pixelated shadows, in Hawke’s impersonation of an almost character, in everything that goes on – read it as you can. But it is also eminently rejectable.
Our call: TO JUMP. Despite its maddening opacity, I really believe Zeros and ones has an audience. It’s just very, very, very small.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
Where to stream Zeros and ones