Zeros and Ones starts with a to-camera introduction by Ethan Hawke expressing how honoured he feels to be working with director/writer Abel Ferrara. After namechecking Willem Dafoe, who’s been Ferrara’s go-to for the past few years, and asserting that an actor’s greatest gift (a well known actor, he means) is being able to champion talent, he reaches forward and clicks the switch on the camera to the off position. The movie proper starts.
This gush is all written by Ferrara, of course, as is the concluding epilogue Hawke also delivers, just the first instance of Ferrara messing with the mind of his audience, which isn’t about to get an easy ride.
Zeros and Ones is a film set during a pandemic, or something like it. It all takes place in an alternate-reality Rome where American soldiers are patrolling the streets. People are wearing masks. In the train station a lone operative is spraying surfaces and wiping things down. The city is empty. There may be a curfew.
Imagine a noirish thriller missing the beginning, where everything is set in motion, and the end, where all the ends are neatly tied up. That leaves the middle, the bit where the detective/hero goes from one situation to another, asking questions in an attempt to put the world back in its box.
Ethan Hawke plays that guy. Actually he plays two guys. One is the hard-to-read lone soldier wandering the mean streets by night. Is he part of an invading force? Or is he on a humanitarian mission? We never find out. Maybe both.
The other is the soldier/detective’s flaky brother, who’s being held against his will in a bad part of town, where he’s being asked to pay for… it’s not entirely clear what, but American imperialism maybe? The rambling speech he gives after he’s been injected with LSD references big concepts and the US Constitution, among other things. It’s all very Willem Dafoe, if not Colonel Kurtz.
“Maybe both” seems to be this film’s big idea. It looks like Ferrara is tilting at binary thinking – the basis of which is the zero and the one. Another for instance. At one point the soldier turns up at the house of a woman who might be his girlfriend. They both put on masks for the encounter, those flimsy blue ones. Having done that, they kiss, mask to mask. Makes no sense in an either/or world. This strange film is full of such moments.
The soldier moves on again, visiting some Chinese women who sell him cocaine, then disinfect the dollar bills he gives them. He meets an old woman in a church who tells him his brother “has risen – he sits with his father now.” Later, there are Russian oligarchs being dastardly and an encounter with a beautiful woman (Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara’s wife) in a hotel room. Still later various bits of tourist Rome – the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel – are blown sky high.
It’s a dark film not interested particularly in telling a story. Ferrara and DP Sean Price Williams aren’t interested in the narrative camera either. There are a lot of beautiful glides through the nighttime streets of Rome (it’s always nighttime), but then suddenly the image breaks up, grain and artefacts intrude, the colour shifts into monochrome. It all glistens, bristles with atmosphere.
The effect is of Escape from New York, The Big Sleep and The Third Man all whisked together, minus the bit that explains everything, all bolted together on a no-budget shoot in a deserted capital city with a skeleton cast and crew and then heavily manipulated in post production. Sex, drugs, Catholicism and transgressive behaviour all feature and in some respects it’s a return to the Ferrara of old, of the Bad Lieutenant era. Rock’n’roll, too, thanks to a soundtrack by Joe Delia that broods, burbles and occasionally erupts, echoes of John Carpenter. Along with Hawke, it is the thing that ties this bizarre film together.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021