Everyone has picked a side in writer-director Abel Ferrara’s cryptic new thriller “Zeros and Ones.” His pandemic-set mood piece concerns the clash of warring forces in a reality on the brink of collapse, where the images that cameras capture offer a distorted look into the abyss. Narrative lucidity hides under the artist’s self-imposed mandate to instill somberness at the expense of character and plot.
American soldier JJ (a scruffy Ethan Hawke) arrives in Rome wearing a face mask. As he walks through the train station and into the city in a long sequence that establishes the context, we turn to a sanitation employee power-washing surfaces. A shell of its bustling self, the Italian capital, and later the Vatican, appear deserted. The recognition sets in; this is not entirely dystopian fiction but rather an unsettling, recognizable normal.
Ferrara makes no explicit mention of the COVID-19 pandemic, and no other explanation for the facial coverings is given, almost as if he took for granted that part of the screenplay had already been written for him and downloaded into our minds by the hand of our collective uncertainty.
Walking shadowy streets, JJ embarks on a Stations of the Cross–like hunt, visiting a series of enigmatic characters hiding in plain sight to obtain intel about his twin brother’s whereabouts. Insert voiceover over religious imagery (Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”) anticipating the end of the systems of oppression as we know them and the commencement of a new, presumably fairer era. The radicalized preacher behind the prophetic statements is Justin (also Hawke), the sibling in question as well as a wanted man.
In cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ grimy frames, the director finds an accomplice in creating an atmosphere of confusion amid the darkness that shrouds the holy city. Wielding a hand-held camera, Price Williams seeks angles that reveal the symbols in the background as JJ carries out on-the-ground reconnaissance. A dance of limited light and shifting focus while walking along with the antihero conveys an unnerving energy, that of an enemy lurking even when unseen.
From the frustratingly evasive presentation of the events, with scarce details about what any of this means, one can at least infer there’s a plan in motion that must be stopped for order to remain. JJ and other American soldiers on the ground repeatedly demand to know “When?” and “Where?” from every person they interrogate. Digs at American imperialism also abound in unabashed form.
Although we are blind as to what exactly they need to prevent, Ferrara’s fondness for the sordid fills in the time, whether that is two Asian women touching each other erotically as the leading soldier purchases illegal substances or JJ forced to engage in sexual activity while being recorded for blackmailing purposes. For all the sleaziness he witnesses, Hawke’s character never skips dabbing hand sanitizer when entering a new space. The practice resonates as both timely and knowingly comedic.
When playing JJ, Hawke bargains in muted grimaces, translating the heavy impotence and guilt of being part of the mission in place to apprehend Justin for terrorist ideation. Tormented by betrayal, he maintains a stoic façade as he carries out his calculated quest in this strange underworld. There are no furious outbursts or moments of lightness, just a steady stream of tension.
But when the often-daring actor gets to his scene as Justin, a self-anointed messianic figure, Hawke goes for broke, reciting an impromptu manifesto somewhere between the Declaration of Independence and a Catholic prayer. With an ardent, almost maniacal conviction, this revolutionary martyr echoes Hawke’s protagonist in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” a priest on an ecological crusade.
“Zeros and Ones” is the fourth release by the incredibly prolific director in less than two years (the others being “Tommaso,” “Sportin’ Life,” and “Siberia”), marking a period of vigorous creation for him with assorted effectiveness in the output. But even at his most impenetrable, Ferrara is nothing if not a filmmaker conscious of all elements that compose a cinematic experience, and as obvious as one could imagine that is for everyone who dedicates their time to this medium, that’s not always the case.
Here he plays with the frame rate, forcing us to observe closer details he deems notable, even if we can’t comprehend why. He shows segments of scenes through the lens of a camera in night vision to further note the distinction between what we see and the truth, or he deploys Joe Delia’s score, heavy on military drums, like a bold motif.
And though many of these choices come off as too obviously deliberate, their inclusion builds a language of expression that communicates, if not precisely discernible ideas, a feeling of dread and discomfort. The seams show in the explosions of sacred buildings achieved via low-grade VFX that fails to convince, a decision from an obstinate artist unfazed by any demands of technical perfection but bent on completing his bizarre point about the future. There’s something admirable in that mad vision.
Indecipherable to a fault but in the end surprisingly hopeful, “Zeros and Ones” feels like diving into a murky river to search for a missing object, fully aware one might never find it but still willing to get wet in its slush for the sake of trying.
“Zeros and Ones” opens in US theaters, on demand, and on Apple TV+ on Nov. 19.