Set in a covid riddled world, Ethan Hawke plays American military operative JJ. Called to Rome to prevent an approaching terrorist bombing, all the while searching for information for his imprisoned and now believed to be missing brother. Said brother; a revolutionary, Justin (also played by Hawke) may also hold the intelligence which could stop the attack. During his mission he deals with a host of dangerous characters, personal and professional; rouge agents from all over the world, religious and political figures, all with some sort of skin in the game. If this sounds like the plot of a generic espionage thriller, that’s because it sort of is. But luckily this isn’t a very plot heavy movie.
If you’re anything like me, the idea of a covid era set film at first glance can seem really off putting. While there have been some great instances, 2020’s Host being the obvious example, I’m not particularly interested in diving into covid as a plot device just yet. However, Zeros and Ones handles in different way than something like Host, ZAO has covid as a sort of blanket over the whole thing. Characters are all wearing masks before interactions, using sanitiser coming into rooms, but that’s about it. There is some fun that comes out of this though – with scenes like one where JJ buys drugs from a woman, who then comically sanitizes each individual bill he’s handed over. Or even when he’s kidnapped and the assailants make jibes saying “Don’t worry! We’re all negative!”. While it’s never put in a place of narrative importance, I think its wider presence is.
The film is bookended by two bizarre scenes of what appears to be the real life, not in character, Ethan Hawke. He sets up the movie giving a quick summary of what’s to come, introducing the characters and some of subject matter it’s trying to deal with. It was a really jarring introduction, but I realised quite quickly what this was about. Zeros and Ones is a very confusing film. If I can recall correctly, it’s established that JJ is looking for his brother, there isn’t a great distinction that Hawke is playing both characters. While I think this was intentional on the director’s part in a “ooh they’re both played by the same actor maybe he’s trying to find himself!” kinda way, I think the brothers plotline would be completely missed by the audience without Hawke’s introduction.
The director mentions in interviews how the script was born from a lockdown period. I think within this knowledge is the key to understanding the more confusing aspects of this film. If you cast your mind back to everything shutting down, all cooped up, perhaps you’re worrying about family members, and also feeling like major political events were happening all around us. It was a strange period and feeling. I think that is what the movie is trying to capture. It’s an emotive film, not a logical one – which is what appeals to me most about it, very much a film with covert artsy sensibilities; leaving much to be interpreted by the audience. With such a chaotic structure, and what feels like a frenzied approach to filmmaking it forces you to keep up with it, taking you for the ride and trying to get you on its emotional level. While it’s undoubtedly a strange ride which may not be for everyone, seeing it through to the end pays off. With an ending that doesn’t tie everything up in a way that explains everything you’ve just seen, but somehow feels right.
Unfortunately, with admirable messiness also comes genuine messiness. While Ethan Hawke expectedly performs well with the material, there’s a scattering of just horrendous acting throughout the film. Every other character is operating on an extreme end of the scale, either over the top, or just in a dull, uninteresting fashion. The score feels random and doesn’t really add much to the end product. And they still can’t escape the obligatory group zoom call scene you’ve just got to include in a covid movie. Weirdly, I don’t think these are all necessarily bad things. If you really buy into the overall style and feeling of the film, most of this doesn’t really distract from it’s progression. Although, if you’re already exasperated with the more confusing elements of the film, this might just make it worse.
Ferrara’s latest, Zeros and Ones is a continuation in style of his more modern output. As frustrating as it is fascinating. He still maintains his punk rock, rough around the edges approach to filmmaking, but now with age it’s a bit more self-reflective. Presented as an espionage thriller, we’re instead given what appears to be Ferrara’s perspective on the world at this moment in time. Or now that everything’s opening back up, hopefully, a time now passed. It was a time that was confusing and disorientating, and this is a film that shows it.