Zeros and Ones will be available in select theaters, Apple TV, and everywhere you can rent movies on Friday, Nov. 19.
One of cinema’s enduring emperors of unease, Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York), collaborates with Ethan Hawke on a confounding, nightmarish noir piece meant to evoke paranoia, confusion, and overall anxiety. Zeros and Ones is a pandemic lockdown dream gone sideways, filled with dark, silent streets, hazy hallways, and characters who feel just out of reach.
Zeros and Ones will not be for everyone, as it’s as much a piece of performance art as anything else. With no clear premise other than Hawke playing both an intelligence operative and that operative’s imprisoned twin brother, during a time in Rome when Vatican City has either already been bombed (or will be bombed, as the dreamscape qualities have you doubting time), the film puts you in the shoes of someone who simultaneously knows everything and nothing. Like the worst of one’s unsettling dreams, the viewer feels unprepared, underinformed, and distanced from everyone and everything in a way that’s fascinatingly frustrating.
Filmed in Italy during the throes of the country’s COVID lockdown, Zeros and Ones bats the conventions of a typical espionage thriller around in Lynchian fashion, providing elements of devious doppelgangers, unexplained puppet masters, and dark spaces that can swallow someone whole.
This entire parade — filled with smirking shadowy contacts and an ever-shifting spectrum of allegiances — has been crafted to deliver a messy cauldron of feelings that bubbled up within Ferrara during the worst of 2020, wherein he manifested a “five minutes from now” dystopia full of disorientation. Hawke’s JJ, a man in search of answers regarding his twin, speaks sparingly and cryptically while his lengthy masked-up treks through the city’s mostly barren streets and cramped buildings are designed to mean more than the “plot.”
A danger is about to befall the world, something set on upending everything. It’s never named, barely discussed, and looms over the entire film like a sick cloud of dread. Hawke himself also bookends the movie with direct addresses to us, as part of this deceptive and divisive package, to talk about his involvement.
We learn the first Hawke video was a type of fundraiser, to drum up money for the movie, and that, after all was said and done, the actor was left as possibly befuddled as the rest of us. Though, as he’s proven with past projects, Hawke’s often driven to esoteric themes and stories that present as poetry and the preened plumage of arthouse fare. So, as an extra layer, the star of the movie participates in a brief postscript in an attempt to parse this bizarre curio.
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If you’re looking for strong semblance of story, clarity of purpose, or well defined and presented characters, Zeros and Ones won’t be your cup of tea. It’s an experiment shot and structured to intrude upon your mind and heart. It moves from scene to scene in ways that only work to further build anxiety and resentment, never providing a moment of transparency or reprieve.