Abel Ferrara has had one of the strangest filmmaking careers in American cinema. Growing up in the mean streets of the Bronx, Ferrara honed his directing chops shooting cheap pornos in the 1970s before transitioning into making some of the most thoughtful exploitation pictures of the 1980s… or ever for that matter. 1981’s Ms. 45 is a barn-burner of a rape-revenge picture centering on a woman so beaten down by the constant threat of male violence that she transforms into a spectre of pure and undiscriminating vengeance. Over the next couple decades, Ferrara flirted with mainstream acclaim by adding his strange stamp to everything from science-fiction (Body Snatchers) to cops-and-gangsters sagas (the masterful King of New York).
If there’s any throughline between Ferrara’s genre-hopping body of work, however, it’s the spiritual and psychological torment embodied by each of his antiheroes. When Harvey Keitel — playing the titular role in 1992’s Bad Lieutenant — dropped to his knees in front of a Catholic altar and screamed, “I’ve tried to do the right thing, but I’m too fucking weak! Forgive me, father!,” it should have felt hilariously overwrought, but the personal hells Ferrara’s characters create themselves are far too authentic. To put it lightly, these are not happy people, and Ethan Hawke, playing dual roles in the director’s ultra low-budget Zeros and Ones, fits nicely among the miserable ranks of Ferrara protagonists.
Zeros and Ones continues Ferrara’s obsession with handheld digital photography that’s pervaded his work for the past 20 years and, also like his more recent output, functions as a strange form of anti-entertainment — deliberately unpleasant and more fun to talk about than watch. The plot involves an American mercenary named J.J. (Hawke) on a mission that’s never made very clear except that involves his missing brother (also Hawke), Russian spies and many scenes of Hawke watching blurry security footage. This movie doesn’t actually care about any of that, of course. What the movie is really about is the pandemic, and Ferrara is undoubtedly trying to capture the feeling of the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Filmed without permission on the streets of Rome, nearly every character is wearing a mask, and while COVID is never mentioned directly, we see Hawke early on getting a fever scan before entering a building to conduct murky espionage business. After getting scanned, Hawke asks, “What’s it say?” “Well, you’re still alive,” the security guard responds. The sense of unease permeates the entire movie, and Hawke spends the majority of the movie locked in various rooms watching footage of the world coming to an end, and if that doesn’t sound familiar, your 2020 must have been way better than most.
Nearly every line of dialogue consists of those kinds of vague platitudes. “Jesus was just another soldier. Another war casualty. But on whose side?,” Hawke whispers in an early bit of voiceover narration. A line like that could easily have worked in something like Bad Lieutenant, but Ferrara’s movies have grown so inaccessible at this point that only the director’s small-but-loyal band of devotees will appreciate its message: Morality is a man-made construct, and spiritual redemption is forever out of reach for people like Hawke’s JJ.
Is Zeros and Ones any good, though? By most metrics, not really. Even as an eternal Ferrara apologist, I’ll admit I found my patience wearing thin, even if I admire his commitment to the same bleak messaging and grim spirituality that’s dominated his career. For everyone else, this thing will be like watching a stream of indecipherable computer code, all zeros and ones.