Review: Ethan Hawke gets caught up in the action in Abel Ferrara’s anti-blockbuster ‘Zeros and Ones’

Ethan Hawke stares at a row of burning candles.
Ethan Hawke plays the dual roles of a soldier, above, and his brother in the Lionsgate film “Zeros and Ones.”

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Going strictly by its description, “Zeros and Ones” sounds like a big-budget international thriller in the Bourne or Bond mold. Ethan Hawke plays J.J., a special forces agent sent to a plague-ravaged Rome with two goals: to stop a terrorist bombing and to find out what happened to his politically radical twin brother, Justin. During the course of one night, various factions with diverging agendas manipulate J.J.

But add six words to that pitch — “written and directed by Abel Ferrara” — and most savvy film buffs will know that “Zeros and Ones” will be nothing like a blockbuster. A fiercely independent auteur whose career stretches back to the 1970s, Ferrara probably is best known for “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant,” two ’90s crime classics that turn conventional genre plots into arty character studies, following morally conflicted men and women through soul-testing crises.

Three collaborators enhance Ferrara’s work in “Zeros and Ones.” Composer Joe Delia adds a moody rock score, heavy on militaristic drumrolls. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams works with minimalist lighting, frequently leaving the image looking unusually pixelated, adding to the sense that J.J.’s mission is foggy.


The third collaborator is Hawke, who plays three roles: the passionate Justin, who gets captured by zealots and is seen in hostage videos urging the rebels to burn everything down; the passive J.J., who is so quiet and cautious that he walks right into situations where he can be blackmailed; and the actor, who introduces the film and reappears after the credits, discussing what he thinks it all means.

The star’s theories aren’t meant to close off discussion, because “Zeros and Ones” isn’t that kind of picture. It’s a muted and impressionistic drama, intended to capture the uncertainty of life in pandemic times when everything feels apocalyptic. The title suggests a binary take on the present and the future (or on two very different twin brothers). Maybe the world’s about to end. Or maybe we’re about to turn a corner.

Similarly, this is a movie at which some will shrug and some will love. It’s a spiritually probing, deeply personal, stubbornly idiosyncratic work of art. It’s an Abel Ferrara film.

'Zeros and Ones'

Rated: R, for language, some violence, bloody images, sexual material and drug content

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 19, Lumiere Cinema at the Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD