Zeros and Ones Ethan Hawke Abel Ferrara

The new Abel Ferrara film Zeros and Ones is impenetrable and angry

A reflection on the pandemic and systematic violence, starring Ethan Hawke.

My first introduction to the work of Abel Ferrara was in a CEGEP class where we watched his 1995 film The Addiction. In a fantastic story of vampirism and addiction, a young doctoral student is bitten on a walk alone at night. The film follows her transformation through the improbably wide-gaze of disease and carnage. It’s a movie that feels so small and personal, the fears and anxieties of one woman wrapped up in the guilty conscience of a broken world. The crimes of the state and the crimes of man weigh heavily upon her. We are all as culpable as we are vulnerable. Innocence, the film seems to argue, is dead. 

In recent years, Abel Ferrara has eschewed some of the narrative clarity he once had for more opaque, vaguely experimental projects. Before the release of Zeros and Ones, his film Siberia felt like a literal journey through the subconscious. The movie pulsated with womb-like environments as Dafoe travailed oedipal anxieties. Operating almost exclusively on dream logic, the movie’s lack of straightforwardness still resonates on a level of instinct. Zeros and Ones similarly embraces non-linear storytelling but turned outward. Cloaked in darkness, a soldier arrives in Rome to stop a terrorist attack. He loses touch with reality in a future-like city, the world abounding with apocalyptic imagery and subconscious motifs; doubles, secrets and nightmares.

Ferrara’s guerrilla filmmaking energy uses COVID-19 conditions to craft a movie of profound alienation. Zeros and Ones was shot almost exclusively at night with primarily hand-held cameras in low natural light. Street scenes show men dressed in white spraying down public spaces; characters kiss through surgical masks; the vulnerability of closeness takes on levels of anxious extremism. The plague remains unnamed, and it’s not an imminent threat in the same way terrorism might be (make no mistake though, Ferrara doesn’t necessarily hold this position, the characters do). The so-called new normal is alienation and paranoia. 

Ethan Hawke Abel Ferrara Zeros and Ones
Ethan Hawke stars in Zeros and Ones.

The crimes of civilization weigh heavily here. The weight of world history informs the dark corridors of contemporary (also future) Rome, which feels mangled and putrid through his gaze. Not even love, pure or carnal, can penetrate the darkness of the moment. It’s a movie infected by the spiritual toll of state violence, particularly the inefficiency of military and police powers to protect its citizens. The toll of surveillance and the weight of systematic crimes abroad and at home weigh heavily on all our consciences; the doctoral student walking home at night, as much as the seasoned soldier. The systems meant to keep us safe are perhaps the most devastating agents of violence in human history.

Ethan Hawke makes a rather unconventional Ferrara star. While undeniably one of our great actors, he struggles with letting go, consistently at his best playing cerebral rather than impulsive. Ferrara’s cinema has always favoured the bombastic and unhinged, though it does make sense that a military man may be more boxed in. Hawke’s sharp corners inflected with rage bring a much different energy to the screen than Ferrara’s recent collaborator, Willem Dafoe, whose sinewy earthiness contributed a sense of unpredictability and carnality that Hawke’s does not. That isn’t to say that Ethan Hawke doesn’t work in the role. It’s just that his persona is less aligned with Ferrara’s more chaotic impulses. Just his presence within this universe brings a certain tension; his repression bristles up against the chaos of this world. However, this presence is almost more sinister. Rather than being ruled by impulse and animal instincts, the world’s violence is calculated and thoughtful. Perhaps the values we uphold as most huma, are the ones that will bring about our doom. 

Zeros and Ones remains somewhat impenetrable. Though wildly enthusiastic about his involvement, Hawke has expressed that he didn’t fully understand the script, and it shows. Ferrara seems far less interested in chronology and narrative cleanness at this stage of his career, preferring free associations and juxtapositions. While the plot points can be difficult to sum up neatly, the anger, paranoia and alienation at the heart of the film draw you into its world. 

This movie may have limited appeal outside of Abel Ferrara’s die-hard fans and the few curious masses compelled by films that depict the pandemic unconventionally. As a movie about our moment, Ferrara probes far more profoundly than the surface-level minutia of contemporary political discourse and digs into legacies of violence that loom at the sidelines of the civilized world. ■

Zeros and Ones, directed by Abel Ferrara

Zeros and Ones is available to buy and rent on VOD. For more, please click here.

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