Zeros and Ones

Zeros and Ones begins with an enthusiastic vlog from Ethan Hawke, who eagerly tells the audience that he’ll be playing a dual role in the movie that we’re about to watch.  He also speaks highly of the film’s writer/director Abel Ferrara (Ms. 45Bad Lieutenant, 4:44 Last Day on Earth), and how the filmmaker has made a truly special movie that speaks “to this moment” and that it’s “Abel’s hit on what we’ve been going through for the past year or so”.  Hawke is obviously referring to the COVID-19 pandemic that, by now, most of the population has adapted to or are, at least, trying to adapt.  But after watching Zeros and Ones, I have a feeling Ferrara is resisting.  I’m going to make a rash assumption about Zeros and Ones: the movie is a frustrated reaction to the pandemic and long-term safety measures.

The movie’s obscure and unnecessarily complicated story is about an American soldier, J.J. (Hawke), investigating an impending terrorist attack in Rome while also trying to find the whereabouts of his missing brother Justin (Hawke).  The narrative is as muddy as the film’s blotchy and shadowy visual style, and the thin undercover missions don’t hold the movie together.  The motives are so one-dimensional and the aesthetics are so stripped-down (assumably due to budget restraints and shooting restrictions), it would appear Ferrara is spoofing self-serious espionage thrillers if the movie wasn’t actually trying to be a self-serious espionage thriller itself.

Peppered through the movie, between scenes featuring Hawke sneaking around Rome interrupted by experimental video effects, are close-ups of characters observing barren streets and sterilization precautions as well as other fixated instances where the movie emphasizes individual hygiene procedures.  Ferrara may be trying to date his movie without directly mentioning the pandemic, but the storytelling has an arrogant essence to it (much like 2020’s COVID thriller Songbird).  Zeros and Ones fells like it’s teasing its audience for being so conscientious, that they’re ignoring “real” problems in the world.  This could be completely unintentional.  If it is, Zeros and Ones suffers an extreme and detrimental case of not having a clear enough vision. 

Bookending this mess is another vlog from Hawke, who looks shellshocked.  He tells the audience that he just finished watching the movie for the first time as well.  Hawke is an incredible actor, but the sinking look he gives the camera can’t be fake.  It’s the look and silence of someone realizing they’ve made a mistake.  The enthusiasm for Ferrara’s screenplay is suddenly reduced to Hawke back peddling, describing the script as “inaccurate” and that Hawke “didn’t really understand a word of it” but still “really liked it” though he felt like “somebody was up to something that he wanted to be apart of” despite his confusion. 

Whether we buy his reaction or not, after searching in more silence, Hawke’s interpretation of Zeros and Ones is that people can either question their lives or be thankful for being born.  I don’t agree with that take, but I do relate to the actor’s genuine shock.


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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie

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