Zeros and Ones (
directed by Abel Ferrara
starring Ethan Hawke, Christina Chiriac)
At 70 Abel Ferrara doesn’t really care too much about making films to satisfy an audience. He makes films because he needs to, because that’s what he’s always done, because that’s what makes him who he is. So to say that Zeros and Ones is no ordinary “conspiracy” thriller should come as no surprise. In fact the film is barely a thriller at all in the traditional sense, it’s more a half-remembered dream/ nightmare of what a thriller might be, all double-crosses and dual identities, cold war cliches of spies eked out as signifiers to tension or drama that remain here almost entirely absent. JJ (Hawke), an American special-ops soldier arrives in Rome to (possibly) avert a terrorist threat or to rescue his brother (also played by Hawke) who is (possibly) a revolutionary terrorist or perhaps a metaphorical Jesus figure (as ever the lapsed Catholicism of the director hovers in the background). Hawke appears in a third role as Ethan Hawke The Actor in a straight-to-camera prologue/ epilogue that on the surface seem to contextualize what we will see/ have seen – he admits there was no real script and he didn’t quite understand what he had been making until he saw the finished film – but are perhaps better viewed as a part of an overarching desire to confuse and discombobulate.
Shot in Rome in strict lockdown Zeros and Ones takes place in dark alleyways, deserted streets and hidden rooms. The spies and counterspies, the soldiers, the Chinese gangsters and Russian oligarchs (who may or may not be pulling the strings), the drug dealers and prostitutes all operate away from any actual citizens as if the film was opening up their subterranean world and exposing it like one of those cutaway “how it works” diagrams. Their paranoid underworld is all that exists. Normality has been peeled away. Aside from flashbacks and stock footage inserts, there are no background extras, no passing vehicles. The world is empty. Regular people are absent. And in practical terms this was the reality of the shoot. Nobody but the cast is visible because everybody else was locked down and locked out.
Cinematography is by Sean Price Williams who worked with the Safdies on the excellent Good Times and has a history of crewing for Ferrara in New York from way back. It’s mostly hand-held and filmed at night. I had thought that Williams had used whatever natural light was available but Ferrara has stated that many of the scenes were lit, albeit minimally, so what’s presented here is a new kind of digital-noir where the calculated, creeping shadows of John Alton are replaced by wilfully blurred extreme close-ups, pixelated blackouts, camera glitches and oddly skewed perspectives captured in enclosed, claustrophobic places.
The soundtrack is by long time Ferrara collaborator Joe Delia and it’s a mix of martial drums and reverb rich guitar that squawls and fades and lends an air of menace to even the simplest of scenes ramping up the tension and paranoia in lieu of any discernable action.
Zeros and Ones is not a particularly easy watch. Other than some of Ethan Hawkes’ Nick Nolte-esque outbursts as the crazed/deluded/enlightened terrorist it mostly plays at glacial pace in a swamp of murk and confusion. In terms of “lockdown films” as a genre it’s a step up from most in that it entirely embraces, or more correctly throttles the restrictions and beats them to submission. Uncompromising as ever. Ferrara fans will love it.
Zeros and Ones is available now on digital platforms.
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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