If there’s a hint of Quentin Tarantino in “Killing Zoe,” it’s well deserved, as the tyro talent shepherded this indie project. However, writer/director Roger Avary is no clone, and “Zoe” is a vivid thriller of a different, more considered tone than anything yet seen from his mentor.
While the comprehension of violence in the film is acute, ironically it represents both its biggest marketing asset and a potential commercial stumbling block. The current domestic moviegoing mood has been cool to this type of action fare, regardless of craft or intelligence. The new offering has both and in spades, which can’t hurt, and should benefit in ancillary and foreign exploitation.
The yarn finds recently released con Zed (Eric Stoltz) arriving in Paris to do a “job” for a friend. His specialty is cracking safes, and Eric (Jean-Hughes Anglade), the mastermind, has selected a particularly difficult one for him at a large bank. Adding to the degree of difficulty is a plan to hit the establishment in broad daylight, do the deed and get to another continent quickly.
But before getting down to mapping out the details, Zed takes some long overdue R&R with a Parisian professional named Zoe (Julie Delpy). As things later evolve, he could easily have stayed in bed longer. Eric’s idea of an orchestrated plan is to walk in, pull out guns and take the money.
The exercise program leading up to the next day’s heist is a night of debauchery and abandon. Whoring, alcohol and drugs are all part of the diet. It’s not exactly what Zed had envisioned. And while this section seems protracted, it provides an enormous payoff for the subsequent assault.
The bank siege is a botch from the word go. Most of the seven-member team are at less than peak performance following their long night, and the concept of a clean operation is quickly erased when someone is killed.
Zed is whisked away to work on the basement vault and oblivious to the mayhem — matters are complicated when he spots Zoe in her day job as a bank teller.
Obviously an aficionado of the genre, Avary culls from some classics and twists the material into a new form. Though we’ve seen bank jobs and the like go awry before, it’s unusual to be confronted by an operation so clearly doomed to failure.
The truly chilling aspect of “Killing Zoe” is the correlation Avary makes between the gang’s nihilistic attitude and its penchant for violence. He pinpoints the schism in a precise and unnerving manner.
Though set in the French capital, the film was largely filmed on L.A. soundstages to great effect. Tom Richmond’s camerawork and lighting is particularly outstanding, contributing handsomely to the high-gloss look of the production.
Stoltz is adept as the slightly naive Zed. He transmits a sense of dread that’s ably coupled with equal parts of guile and blindness. Delpy displays dignity in a thankless sketch of a character. Zoe exists more as a plot contrivance than an actual plot motor. Also disappointing is Avary’s inability to provide clear distinctions and traits among other gang members.
But Anglade proves such a dynamo of energy, these and other shortcomings are quickly obscured. Though Eric is an unquestionably showy role, Anglade is exact in the weight he invests at every turn of the narrative.
“Killing Zoe” isn’t quite a lethal prescription for entertainment. Still, Avary has concocted one of the most assured directing debuts in recent years with a film that demonstrates a one-of-a-kind sensibility well worth watching.