Zeros and Ones surely rates as one of the most difficult works in director Abel Ferrara’s challenging filmography. A political thriller about a holy war erupting in Rome, it was shot during the city’s aggressive COVID-19 lockdown, restricting its settings to isolated rooms and the odd walk along eerie streets populated only by emergency workers in PPE gear. As such, a plot that involves black-ops agents and the bombing of the Vatican is mostly processed secondhand from the hideout of JJ (Ethan Hawke), an American soldier tasked with gathering intelligence as he evades enemy soldiers.

Despite following events more talked about than seen, Zeros and Ones delves into sensory overload to capture JJ’s increasing paranoia around the mysteriousness of the information war he’s fighting. Sean Price Williams’s cinematography, all smudged and pixelated digital textures, regularly erases the boundaries between what JJ films, the intel he receives, and the audience’s ostensibly objective perspective. This only compounds the bewildering nature of the vague conflict, forcing the audience to identify with JJ’s conspiratorial mindset, which may or may not be validated by the insinuation that the attacks in Rome are false flags with which the West can justify an eternal sectarian war.

From Zeros and Ones

This could be a pointed statement on the military-industrial complex, yet Ferrara never baldly states this as the thesis. In an era when movie political messaging is often simplistic and explicit, he shows a rarer, more complex embrace of the often-irreconcilable contradictions and inconclusiveness inherent to any honest reckoning with the vast forces that shape our lives. The necessarily limited conditions of the production pivot the film’s focus from war itself to a confrontation with the contemporary feeling of being so overwhelmed by information that one ends up feeling less knowledgeable than ever. It’s easy to turn to conspiracy theory because it’s the only way to assign order to the endless flood of data.

Further adding to the glut of material is how many of Ferrara’s past movies this recalls. JJ’s relationship to an identical twin who is his ideological opposite conjures comparisons to the Jungian fantasia Siberia, while the ominous travelogue of Rome’s emptied streets darkly invert his recent elegant tours of the city. It’s the Finnegans Wake to the Ulysses of Tommaso. In his own abstruse way, Ferrara has crafted an interconnected “cinematic universe” of the sort that now dictates so many blockbuster releases

But the most fruitful point of comparison would be Ferrara’s 1998 William Gibson adaptation New Rose Hotel, which adopted a similarly abstract visual and structural language to depict the overwhelming sense of displacement and alienation of living in a globalized corporate oligarchy. Like that film, Zeros and Ones explores political and social paranoia with no outlet — a world in which being spied on is so commonplace that even those doing the surveillance no longer know why they are doing it and can only fret about who is watching them.

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Zeros and Ones opens in select theaters and on VOD November 19.

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Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Slant Magazine, MTV...