Shoot it so they believe it.
The opening credits had already begun before Ethan Hawke appeared to introduce himself and the film we’re about to see. He talks about always being a fan of Abel Ferrara and being excited that they were finally working together before describing Zeros and Ones as the writer/director’s interpretation of the world we’re currently living in due to COVID, terrorism, and the blurred line between good and evil. It’s an interesting maneuver that could either be a result of wanting to get audiences pumped by Hawke’s own excitement level or situated in the correct headspace for what will ultimately be an intentionally confusing ride. Hawke reappearing during the end credits to explain how he had no clue what was going on when first reading Ferrara’s “script” should prove which.
Hawke’s initial excitement shouldn’t be discounted, though. Yes, he later admits the opening video was one he recorded for potential financiers rather than audiences, but that doesn’t render it more or less of an authentic description about his feelings towards the work. Whether or not he has a handle on the plot (one could probably argue that Ferrara doesn’t either) is inconsequential to the experiential quality of its obtuse construction. Both actor and filmmaker want us to be steeped in the uncertainty of our times. They want us to feel like we’re barely keeping our heads above water. And we do because of both the work’s style/aesthetic and its intentional refusal to adhere to any sort of narrative coherence. The question is whether you can still be absorbed.
I couldn’t. I’ll say that straight out. All Zeros and Ones conjured for me was frustration and exasperation. Rather than find myself engaged in any meaningful way, I checked out about halfway through and simply rode out the rest with zero expectations that anything to come would shed light on anything that already happened. When J.J. (Hawke) lands in Rome, he goes home to watch a video that is completely indecipherable. Then he meets a superior to watch a video on his phone of a terrorist attack blowing up the Vatican before arriving at the Vatican to film that it was still untouched. Was someone pretending they destroyed it? Was someone threatening that they would? Was that person J.J.’s brother Justin (also Hawke)? Infinite questions arise without answers.
And that’s the point as far as I can reckon it. We’re supposed to be in the dark as to who is good or bad. You have Hawke playing a military man and a revolutionary. One takes orders while the other (maybe) gives them. Both are part of large organizations that ultimately succeed because every member is little more than a cog in the machine who can be replaced in an instant. Does that make them scarier? Does it normalize them? Comparing the military to terrorists is hardly a new idea, but I don’t think Ferrara is trying to be unique thematically. He’s merely attempting to prove his point by obfuscating its myriad conventional pieces with an abstract cinematic language composed of tenuous connections devoid of any context.
So much that happens is absurdly strange for what appears to be strangeness’ sake. J.J. visits a woman who hands him a medical mask to put on before they kiss. His superior shows him a live feed of Russians having dinner before asking if he knows the two women (generically credited as “laughing” and “serious”) while J.J. gazes upon a photograph of them with him and his brother without letting us know if a) he does know them or b) his superior is already aware. There’s a weird dude on a TV screen (potentially) doctoring video and thus (potentially) proving the smoking gun that J.J. is playing both sides. And don’t forget the Asian brothel of refrigerated phones and a wealth of classified information. Everyone knows everything.
That’s not hyperbolic either. J.J. has a contact posing(?) as a homeless man. Apparent strangers walk up to him in random places with new intel about his brother. And the fact people say Justin is dead quickly becomes meaningless since we can never know if characters are speaking literally or figuratively. Around and around we go, following J.J. as he takes his gun and camera around Rome with seemingly no true purpose beyond pinballing to whatever destination the last person he spoke to told him about. Are any of these people reliable? Maybe. Some cover for him. Some warn him. And some do everything they can to implicate him as a rogue operative. We neither know if he truly is nor why the others even care.
It’s all a game to them. Lives are expendable. Truth and fiction are disseminated side-by-side via electronics and what anyone does with either becomes less about veracity than action. Hence the title? That we’re all “zeros and ones” in a binary computer program being hacked every second of every day by faceless anarchists with warped political ideologies and too much free time? All I know for sure is that my brain’s recollection of what I just saw minutes ago has become a puzzle of its own. Bits and pieces are floating around in my memory like balloons with tethered strings being systematically cut loose. You could offer a million dollars and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what occurred during the last scene. It’s all a blur.
 Ethan Hawke as J.J. in the thriller film, ZEROS AND ONES, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
 Cristina Chiriac as Laughing Russian agent in the thriller film, ZEROS AND ONES, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
 Korlan Madi as Jiao in the thriller film, ZEROS AND ONES, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.