Review of "Zeros and ones": plague and paranoia

Excessively cryptic, Abel Ferrara’s “Zeros and Ones” unfolds in a darkness that is both literal and ideological. Even his star Ethan Ha...


Excessively cryptic, Abel Ferrara’s “Zeros and Ones” unfolds in a darkness that is both literal and ideological. Even his star Ethan Hawke – speaking to us as himself in two brief scenes that end the film – admits that he initially didn’t get Ferrara’s script. Its frankness is heartwarming and emboldened, encouraging persistence with a story whose destination seems as vague as the motivations of its characters.

What is clear is that the constraints of making pandemic films were catnip for Ferrara, whose nervous camera patrols the deserted night streets of a locked Rome alongside soldier JJ (Hawke). elite American on a mysterious undercover mission. It requires tracking down his twin brother, Justin (also Hawke), an imprisoned revolutionary who is seen being interrogated and tortured multiple times.

Watched over by shady foreign agents, JJ weaves his way from one stealth encounter to another, constantly filming his progress. Ruthless, grainy close-ups capture him sipping tea with a mother and child – possibly his brother’s family – in an empty apartment and, later, alongside a mullah in a mosque. A terrorist attack on the city may be imminent, but JJ is otherwise engaged with a couple of slender prostitutes (“They are both negative,” their lady announces gently) and a beautiful Russian woman (played by the partner of the director, Cristina Chiriac) who forces him to have sex at gunpoint. At this point the only thing we’re sure is that Ferrara, bless his thug soul, is still himself with strength, inflexibility.

Firmly embracing this rambling and barely penetrating narrative, Hawke gently distinguishes JJ’s relentless intensity from his brother’s delusions (whose messianic rants are reminiscent of Hawke’s startling performance as John Brown in last year’s Showtime drama “The Good Lord Bird”.) Struggling with some of the film’s most delicate dialogue (“You hate trees!” He yells at his unidentified tormentors), Justin serves as the weakened and desperate conscience of a world seemingly abandoned by God and by compassion.

With its pungent, apocalyptic aesthetic and lingering paranoia, this chilling political thriller is all about a mood: conspiratorial, sinister, unstable. Here, the accessories of pandemic life become even more disturbing: a disinfection team in the metro recalls plague thrillers like “Contagion” (2011), and a suddenly brandished thermometer pointed at JJ’s forehead plays like a pistol attack. When everyone is wearing a mask, how do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Totally confusing, but never less than intriguing, “Zeros and Ones” lingers on the mind. Even after thinking I swept it away, his cold tendrils keep hanging on.

Zeros and ones
Rated R for temptation and torture. Duration: 1 hour 25 minutes. In theaters and available for rental or purchase at Amazon, google play and other streaming platforms and pay-TV operators.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review of "Zeros and ones": plague and paranoia
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