Perhaps this was not the best choice for my first Ferrara film, but when Ethan has a new project I can’t hold off for very long. Filmed during last year’s strange pandemic autumn in an eerily quiet Rome, Zeros and Ones seems like a straight-to-DVD action thriller that keeps Bruce Willis’ lights on, but is actually something much stranger. This is a vision of the apocalypse, filtered through a digital lens, cracked phone screens, and Ethan Hawke’s haunted face. It’s pretty fun! I think?
Hawke plays an American soldier named JJ who has been sent to Rome during some kind of lockdown (COVID is never actually mentioned by name, but there’s a lot of mask-wearing, albeit somewhat inconsistent) to deal with local terrorists. Or, JJ has come to Italy on his own accord in order to find his twin brother Justin (also Hawke) who has maybe become a terrorist himself. Or is any of this happening at all? We just don’t know. We only know we’re following JJ’s every move as he attempts to navigate a city that seems ready to collapse at any moment. There are Skype calls aplenty, strange rendezvous with gangsters, vicious Russian oligarchs, a giant explosion in the Vatican, and naked women all in a film that barely runs 80 minutes.
Ethan clearly relishes the chance to go wild. While JJ is calm and collected in the face of constant danger, what we see of Justin is raw psychosis. If Reverend Toller of First Reformed hadn’t backed off his ecoterroist plot, he might have ended up like Justin, raving about how no one sets themselves on fire anymore. Does the film’s title refer to the parallels between these brothers? Maybe! Or it could just refer to smartphones! There sure are a lot of them in this.
I’ve been hard pressed to find a piece of “pandemic art” I really connect with outside of the second season of Work in Progress. Great show, check it out sometime. The Morning Show is just being ridiculous, and the few “lockdown” films we’ve gotten seem trite. Zeros and Ones comes closest to capturing the low grade psychic damage we all took from just being alive. I also appreciate the introduction and mid-credits scene Ethan recorded from his living room, out of character. Of Ferrara’s script, he says “I really didn’t understand a word of it. But I liked it.” That’s good enough for me!
Zeros and Ones
dir. Abel Ferrara
Available on VOD platforms Friday 11/19