Written and directed by Abel Ferrara, Zeros and Ones opens with a video message directly from lead actor Ethan Hawke, even before the actual narrative of the film gets going. This video from Hawke looks to have been shot on a cell phone or small video camera. Here we have one of the most well-regarded actors of the past 25 years setting up the film with a message straight to the audience, discussing his admiration and reverence for Abel Ferrara as a filmmaker and collaborator. It is such a beautiful moment of transparency and sincere passion for storytelling. Hawke explains that the following film will be a story about the current predicament of the world as it continues to fight a raging pandemic, through the lens of Abel Ferrara’s creativity as an artist. However, for those worried that Zeroes and Ones is “just another pandemic movie,” let it be known that the presence of COVID-19 in this film is incorporated in such a way that it does not feel like a vexing gimmick. Rather, it is used foundationally in the framework of the script to deliver something meaningful and conscientious.
At first glance, the plot of Zeros and Ones is a bit of a tangled web of political intrigue, social tension, and impending violence that could erupt at any moment. There are many moving parts in the narrative, and some pieces of the puzzle are easier to fit together than others. Still, shaping the bigger picture into focus as the viewer feels more like an entertaining challenge than an undesirable chore. Set in contemporary Rome, there is the looming threat of a terrorist attack on the Vatican. JJ Jericho (Ethan Hawke) is an American operative situated in the region, practicing just as much caution against the airborne microscopic enemy of COVID-19 as he is against the more obvious physical threats that are closing in. On the other side of the coin, Hawke also plays the brother of JJ, a character named Justin Jericho. Justin is an activist and revolutionary, is despised by the American government, and is branded as an enemy to the people. It is not made entirely clear what he knows and how he knows it, but the audience is led to believe that the knowledge he has could start wars.
Hawke’s performances in these dual roles are very distinctive from one another. JJ is a worn and weary character, carrying with him a heavy sense of melancholy. Conversely, Justin is apprehensive and filled with nervous energy, seemingly on the verge of a breakdown. The dichotomy we see reflected here can be found in other areas of the film as well. There is a lot of grit and grime in the underbelly of the political and social machines at play in Zeros and Ones. Lies and treachery abound as human life is played as a bargaining chip. Yet, there are also moments of pure innocence and the simple graces of existence. The world can be cruel and unforgiving, indeed, but there is an empathetic heart to be found in the people, places, and things that keep the world spinning.
With grainy digital cinematography from DP Sean Price Williams, the atmosphere in Zeros and Ones has an uncomfortable, moody vibe. Most of the film takes place in the middle of the night, and the dark streets and alleyways of Rome are bathed in a dim, beige light. Lines of spoken dialogue in the script are infrequent, so most of the storytelling is left to the camera. The air is heavy with a tangible instability that could suddenly tip the scale of temporary peace into chaos. Williams was also the DP on the Safdie Brothers’ intoxicating New York City crime drama Good Time (2017), a film that had similar aspects of atmospheric anxiety. Just as there are grimy nooks and crannies of NYC uncovered in Good Time, a comparison can be made to how the setting of Rome is established in Zeros and Ones. The camera shows us the rugged portions of the city that you would not find on a postcard or travel commercial, but are still important facets of the region’s physicality nonetheless. These visuals serve the screenplay’s rather pessimistic thematic statements, albeit with the faint glimmers of light at the end of the dark tunnel that are also present.
After the credits, Ethan Hawke once again appears on camera with a closing message for the audience. It is a lovely touch that brings the entire viewing experience full circle. The glowing words he uses to describe his affinity for Zeros and Ones are one thing, but the look on his face as he delivers this praise is just as genuine. Hawke’s love of filmmaking and zeal for storytelling is infectious. While the ominous tone of this particular film may not be up to the speed of all audience members, Hawke’s candidness and strong spirit is hard to resist.
In select theaters, on Apple TV, and for rent November 19th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD on January 4th, 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.