DV-shot fake documentary about Columbine-type school slayings, “Zero Day” proves consistently riveting. Anything but sensationalistic, pic powerfully illuminates the banality of evil, as realistically ordinary kids (played brilliantly by non-professional high schoolers) prepare to wreak havoc. Killer twosome shown matter-of-factly demonstrating how to assemble a pipe-bomb may spook viewers, but film might receive more flak for deliberately avoiding “socially conscious” cliches — pic offers no revelations of warning signals, and refuses to demonize its protagonists. “Zero” could score strongly with arthouse and college auds, and generate enough buzz to lure a wider public.
First in a rash of movie treatments of school massacres, “Zero” will be a tough act to follow. “Home Room” preems a mere couple of days later and Gus Van Sant’s Cannes-palmed “Elephant” is skedded for October release. Oddly, these three nearly contemporaneous post-Columbine films comprise a kind of triptych — while “Elephant” unfolds on the day of a shooting and “Home Room” in the aftermath of one, “Zero” concentrates on a video diary ostensibly made by the kids over the 11 months preceding the event.
First-time helmer Ben Coccio has opted to lock his film within the subjectivity of the self-styled “Army of Two,” who seldom interact meaningfully with anyone else. Tapes in which the future perpetrators are seen directly addressing the camera are intended as a post-mortem justification for their coming actions. Yet the tapes yield no coherent rationale aside from ramblings about “wakeup calls” and an insistence on the teens’ part that they are acting intelligently, even caringly.
Mugging and playing to their invisible audience, Andre Kriegman (Andre Keuck) and Cal Gabriel (Calvin Robertson) veer from adolescent silliness to parody (“Welcome to this week’s episode of Home Gun Review”) to self-important pedantry as they lay out the steps of their training program and execute them one by one: First they set off Fourth of July fireworks and, next, pelt the house of a detested jock classmate with rotten eggs. Steps involving rifle modification, target practice with live ammo, pipe-bomb assemblage and the nighttime burglary of a cousin’s private arsenal round out the checklist.
Paradoxically, the very rigidity of the kids’ agenda allows Coccio enormous leeway in creating freeform scenes with the improvisational casualness of home movies. Exchanges with parents and siblings (thesped by lead actors’ real-life families), though highlighting certain aspects of the duo’s personalities, follow no overarching psychological profile. Rather, principals seem to have launched a self-propelling process: After burning all their personal effects (CDs, books, videos, a note from a girl in eighth grade), Andre murmurs, “I guess we’ll have to go through with it now.”
Unlike “Elephant,” “Zero Day” affords no close-up contact with the victims. The only glimpse we get of Cal’s and Andre’s classmates, in a prom-bound limo that picks up Cal and his date, conveys a sense of mildly inebriated idiocy. The supposed slings and arrows of humiliation Cal and Andre have endured remain vague. Coccio denies his heroes (and his audience) any “Revenge of the Nerd”-ish glee in underdog turnabout or “Carrie”-like overkill justice.
Climax of the pic, predetermined from the outset, paradoxically comes as something of a shock. Nothing in Cal and Andre’s meticulous groundwork-laying prefigures the sadistic brutality of the attack itself. The final slaughter is shot in black-and-white and from a great distance, ostensibly by the school’s own surveillance cameras.