Abel Ferrara’s debut film, The Diller Killer (1979), opens with the onscreen proclamation that ‘This film should be played LOUD’. His latest film, decades later, carries on this sensibility. If you are going to watch Zeros and Ones, and you really should, turn the thing up loud. Turn it up as loud as you can, loud to the point of chaos, and bathe in its madness. This is a bewildering, incomprehensible, semi-mess of a film that is, just maybe, utterly brilliant.
Really, I should describe what the film is about: its narrative and so forth. But, seeing as the film has little interest in doing this, I have no idea where I would even start. Luckily, Zeros and Ones actually comes with bookending scenes in which lead actor, Ethan Hawke, tells you about the film. To begin with, he vaguely introduces it as a pandemic production with something to say; at the end, he explains how he didn’t understand a word of the script and then gives you his reading of what he thinks the film you just watched is about. He then assures you that this section is ‘part of the film’. His explanation is fascinating though, rewarding us for panning for gold in this river of madness.
To try and give context, this film vaguely follows Ethan Hawke’s US soldier on a mission in Rome. He’s there to stop a terrorist attack, maybe also to rescue his brother. None of this is particularly explained, what we instead have are fragmented sequences that we are actively discouraged from tying to parse. There’s a propulsive energy, as Hawke keeps moving and things just keep happening. Exciting things. There are explosions, certainly. Or perhaps, only maybe? There seemed to be one definite explosion, with a lingering aftershock overwhelming the film’s soundtrack. Until that destructive echo morphs into the film’s score, seamlessly, and a thudding synthesised bass line takes over. A repeated and hypnotic riff you’ve heard time and time again. Something happened. Probably. Maybe?
We location hop, that’s for sure. We take in a cornucopia of religious imagery and enjoy a very blunt narration, with some thuddingly faux-philosophical dialogue. Our protagonist muses and cogitates, saying things that make you think as long as you don’t think about them too much. It would be easy here to criticise the emptiness of the dialogue, but this also seems to be the point. Zeros and Ones presents a world without meaning, a world of empty contradictions and no clarity. It is reminiscent of the swathe of post-9/11 pictures that became obsessed with everything being morally grey and ambiguous. But this isn’t some post-truth nonsense, this is actual confusion and chaos. Most scenes involve seemingly random occurrences or have the dialogue assault us with random questions about a context we’re never given. Our protagonist is placed in the same bewildering position as us, always over his head and always overwhelmed as contradictory motifs float around them. Sex, violence, religion (different religions), technology, Italy, Russia, America. It all somewhat loops in and out, context free. At one brilliant point, Hawke’s character enters a room only to be shouted at by somebody on Skype (just waiting for him, apparently) and told he has to run or they will get him. He runs and then a bunch of armed military personnel burst in.
It’s just awesome.
Maybe I just gave in, but the nonsense started to make complete sense. It is such an effective evocation of an utterly bewildering world. It so perfectly captures the current experience in a way that may not work next month, never mind next year. It is a film for exactly now, a film of fractured uncertainty thrown into our faces in which down is up, up is down and nothing coheres. It is sold perfectly through the filmmaking, chaotic stylisation and a thumping score that’s never not mesmeric. Ethan Hawke is brilliant, fully committed to the madness and able to elevate it even further.
What makes the film actually great, though (and I do think it is great), is the way it eventually evokes a kind of clarity and light. It is a film you couldn’t spoil, but I will still tread carefully. Our ending, before a lovely talk from Ethan, comes out of nowhere. We don’t get closure, and this is of course in keeping with the rest of the film. We do get something transcendent, though. We get something pure and uplifting and human. Something divorced from what we’ve seen yet also free of context (a moment that both fits and doesn’t fit: the perfect coda to this film). It serves as a reminder that the world is chaotic, and scary, and conflicting but it is also beautiful. And sometimes the nonsense of it all is part of that beauty. It is hard not to be swept up by this abrupt tonal whiplash, but you then also need to appreciate the odd cohesion. If this is a reflection of our times, and it really feels like it, we are left with a reminder that beauty and joy still exist amongst all of the overwhelming chaos. Ones among the zeros.