Quantifying 'Zeros and Ones'
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Approaching Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones from a traditional, critical standpoint has been a daunting, ongoing, and rather unproductive task for me. Time and time again, I have tried to crystallize my thoughts on what the movie does right and what exactly “right” means within this context. This question of whether or not quality is quantifiable underlies all film criticism and bringing it to the fore is something of a cop-out in a lot of ways, an avenue by which one (“one” being me, I am a coward) can escape any meaningful expression or analysis. In their stead, we get the whining, lofty platitudes of a Twitter blue-check (everyone’s favorite strawman). Pushing platitudes aside as best I can, I would describe Zeros and Ones as a snake, curling and winding its way out of my hands every time I try to get a solid grip on it. While enjoyment of its purely visceral pleasures is a case-by-case phenomenon in the extreme, to remain so elusive is a feat in and of itself. Few movies that are so didactic and confrontational are ever this textually obscure.
Given that the movie’s star, Ethan Hawke, is no stranger to the direct-to-video action world, the movie’s poster and premise are deceptive to anyone who doesn’t know the name ‘Abel Ferrara’ and all the implications it carries. To the average viewer, the poster is innocuous, even cheap-looking: Hawke stares enigmatically into the camera above a poorly photoshopped image of masked soldiers running away from the flaming husk of an exploded car. A similar air of low rent, Tom Clancy soldiering surrounds the plot synopsis: a soldier (played by Hawke) comes to Rome to search for his brother (also played by Hawke), who may be able to stop an imminent terrorist attack on the Vatican. There’s a simple setup here for a formulaic action procedural with a few cursory nods to the COVID-19 pandemic and political unrest. If I were to judge Zeros and Ones based on how well it lives up to that, I’d say it falls flat on its face. To anyone who has either watched the movie or has a passing knowledge of its director, to think that it ever had any intention of being Clancysploitation is absurd.
Those airport action novel elements are present, of course, but only in the most superficial way possible. It would be an equally difficult task to discover the “plot” of Zeros and Ones as to surmise precisely what the movie is saying. Hawke’s nighttime wanderings are nothing more than a conduit for Ferrara to explore massive, spiritual concepts, ranging from the global imperialist hegemony to the decline of Christianity to the true nature of intimacy. Deducing what Ferrara’s conclusions on these issues are would be a Herculean (and entirely pointless) task. The movie even offers an unsure explanation of itself in the form of Hawke’s pre and post-movie messages to the viewer, practically toying with its inevitably flummoxed audience. Instead, Ferrara’s interests lie in loaded and scattered images and phrases, a solid directorial choice given the talent he had to work with (Ferrara’s late period work has relied decreasingly on scripts, and Hawke claims Zeros and Ones barely had anything that resembled one).
Shot by Sean Price Williams in what may be his best work yet (it's certainly the best cinematography I’ve seen all year), the raw, digital look of Zeros and Ones is a perfect reflection of the both literally and spiritually empty modernity Ferrara attempts to portray. So extreme are some of Williams’ images that I thought, for a second, my TV’s brightness settings had been messed up, only to realize that the point was not to be able to see what was going on. Obfuscation is built into the aesthetic and thematic DNA of Zeros and Ones, which is sure to frustrate quite a few viewers. Like Williams, Hawke is a wonderful vehicle for Ferrara’s ramblings. Though it’s made clear that he had just as little of an idea of what was going on in the movie as the audience, he sells it. His alternately deranged and subdued ramblings (packed full with political buzzwords and obvious quotations) are a joy to watch, in the way that so many Ferrara performances are.
Doing the work of a reviewer, I feel as though I have to come to the conclusion of whether or not Zeros and Ones succeeds at what it sets out to do. I’m going to say, “Yes.” Yes, because it looks beautiful; because it’s vibrant against a palette of bland new releases; because it's utterly baffling; because I’ve been thinking about it for days; because I’ve sat down to write about it five times now and can’t decide on what’s best to say. Zeros and Ones is flailing wildly, throwing punch after obscure punch into a cultural void. It refuses to be tied down and I watch it with the same joyful intensity that one watches a wild animal: a paragon of spiritual calm in one moment and a practitioner of rabid violence the next.