‘Zeros and Ones’ Review: Ethan Hawke can’t help this pandemic war thriller that leaves you with more questions than it answers.

Directed by. Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara ditches the psychodrama playlets and focuses on “thrills” in the Ethan Hawke-led Zeros and Ones. However, it does contain a significant amount of narrative and directorial restraints that keep it from abiding by Ferrara’s usual abstruse thematics.

There aren’t many directors who can showcase brutality and physicality while adding a small dash of exploitation as Abel Ferrara, or at least the director’s past work did. He wasn’t shy about covering hard thematics, and he loved to paint the screen blood red with his on-screen violence. Most people know him for Bad Lieutenant (1992) and King of New York (1990), but some of his less noticeable work like Body Snatchers (1993), Ms .45 (1981), and The Driller Killer (1979) carry an assessment of division. It had critics around the world reacting in two demeanors: outrage or admiration. Some look at it as art, while others might seem to put it aside as exploitation. Yet, people highly anticipate what he has next in-store because he is so unpredictable. The problem is that lately, his works don’t have the panache or the devilish intrigue of vile dramatic junctions that his past projects handled. He still manages to cover some of his past themes of existentialism and self-analyzation but suffers in the execution. 

Now, the controversial director continues to extend his oeuvre with the pandemic-set “war” thriller, Zeros and Ones. Ferrara’s latest begins in the oddest fashions; it starts with an introduction from the film’s lead, Ethan Hawke. In those seconds, Hawke explains the virtue of having worked with Ferrara on this project and sets up high-rise expectations regarding the film you are about to see. In my opinion, this isn’t the best way to start your picture because it seems like it is praising itself too much. Is it going to be that good? I surely hope so! Even if its concepts are intriguing, Ferrara’s most recent works haven’t been of the highest quality. From my point of view, his filmography is taking a quantity over quality route since he has released five full-length projects in the last two years (The Projectionist, Tommaso, Siberia, Sportin’ Life, and this one). 

Set on one deadly night in Rome, there is a calling to the city to stop an impending terrorist bombing. Soldier J.J. (Ethan Hawke) is gravely seeking news about his imprisoned rebel brother Justin (also played by Ethan Hawke), who carries a certain apprehension that can balk the strafing. J.J. is rapidly navigating the dimmed streets of Rome while having some threatening encounters, all in hopes to keep the Vatican from being bombed. There is also a subplot about a mother and her child offering information to J.J. and a blackmailing scheme that he gets involved in that isn’t worth getting into complete detail because the narrative loses its focus quickly. 

Ferrara tries to mix and match several concepts together regarding brotherhood, anarchist politics, retaliation, as well as insulation, and it does work in spots. However, it isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Sold as your ordinary terrorist thriller, yet still, at its core, Ferrara wants to use his familiar elements to retell a different variation of his previous work, making it feel somewhat enlivening, albeit pretty messy in the long run. It is always at the brink of being a farce or a visionary piece about conspiracy, and in some way, that makes you want to keep watching; to see in which direction it will end. Thanks to Hawke’s dedication to the bit and confidence with the director, he delivers a good performance as the two brothers, even if he isn’t given the best material to work with. There is also an ever-developing metaphor for our current pandemic bewilderments growing with the film’s transition from thriller to an edgy drama that never finds its footing.

Does Zeros and Ones live up to Hawke’s initial expectations? Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Ferrara hasn’t delivered a commending work since Pasolini (2014), and it hurts to say that yet another piece of his isn’t functioning. After seeing the film, it baffles me that he won the Leopard prize for Best Direction at the Locarno Film Festival. Rome is shot in a way that doesn’t look like Rome, its plot is all over the shop, and the camerawork is so dizzying and distracting that you do not know what is happening in some cases. There are some exciting ideas, and Ethan Hawke’s dual performance is pretty good, carrying the film behind its back, but the narrative leaves you with more questions than answers. Although I’m still excited for what may come next, there is this growing frustration that he may never deliver another work similar to or to the same degree as what he did back in the 90s. 

Grade: C

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