Ethan Hawke is known for roaming the streets, speaking romantic words, and sharing personal wisdom. He has charmed the audience in his Before Series, which can easily be stated as one of the most beautiful independent films. In Zeros and Ones, Hawke roams the streets as well, but under a different lens and carries a different story.
Zeros and Ones, written and directed by Abel Ferrara, follows an American soldier, J.J. (played by Ethan Hawke), on a covert mission in Rome during the COVID-19 lockdown. The film, shot during COVID times, depicts a lockdown scenario where most scenes are shot indoors. Hawke roams the empty streets of Rome, filming the locations as his character tries to locate his twin brother, Justin (also played by Hawke). Justin has turned into a revolutionary and is a suspected terrorist of the Vatican bombings. The surveillance videos and self-recorded shots designed by cinematographer Sean Price Williams present a warzone situation in Rome as J.J. undertakes the task of finding his missing brother.
Ethan Hawke gives out two small bytes at the beginning and end of Zeros and Ones. His words are the only meaningful text one could grasp from Abel Ferrara’s cryptic fiction. Hawke even jokes that when Ferrara sent him the script, the document that looked like a script, he couldn’t fathom a word of it. But watching the film cleared some doubts. So let’s try to explore the meaning of Zeros and Ones.
‘Zeros and Ones’ Plot Summary
An American military soldier, J.J., wearing a mask, walks out of the railway station and witnesses military personnel patrolling the streets while PPE-equipped workers sanitize the surroundings. The two images most likely establish that it’s a warzone Vatican during COVID lockdown. J.J. walks down the empty streets and reaches his apartment. As soon as he removes his mask and washes his hands, he gets a Skype call from Stephen Gurewitz, who orders J.J. to send the surveillance footage that he recorded today.
After a moment, J.J. leaves the apartment and meets his senior, Phil, who shows him footage of a terrorist group probably behind the bombings in the city. The voice in the video claims to free people from the deceptive lies that they belong to a great nation. These particular words in the bombing footage with an NYSPD car in the foreground clearly suggest that the terrorist is hinting at the USA.
Phil drops J.J. near St. Peter’s Basilica, the symbol of Christianity. He orders him to shoot or gather evidence so that the world will understand the extremist ideologies of these terrorists.
While gathering evidence, J.J. visits his sister-in-law, Valeria, who lives with her daughter (probably Justin’s daughter). J.J. inquires about his brother Justin with Valeria. She informs him that he is still in prison and probably alive. While sipping tea with Valeria, J.J. hints that even if Justin comes out, he won’t survive. He knows some really confidential information, and his military will probably kill him.
What happened to Justin?
J.J. undertook the covert mission in war-stricken Rome because he wanted to find out what happened to his twin brother, Justin. J.J. paid a visit to a drug peddler’s shop or something like a snitch, who handed over video evidence of Justin. In the video, J.J. saw his brother locked in a room. Some men (not wearing uniforms) interrogated Justin. Luciano, an Italian, asked Justin, “when and where?” He was most likely looking for the time and location of a terrorist attack.
Justin refused to answer but instead called these men fascists. He said his voice was a fascist killing machine, which suggested that Justin had become a revolutionary. According to Justin, these men were part of the fascist government who probably threatened the non-Christian citizens of the country. It could have become a reason for the revolution in the country that turned violent.
Was Justin a terrorist?
In the next scene, J.J. visited a mosque, which established that the government was executing Islamic citizens. When J.J. asked a Mulla (Islamic priest) when this attack would happen, the saint said that it had been happening for a thousand years, suggesting the Great Crusade War. The saint asked J.J. whether his brother ever wore a uniform, to which J.J. replied “no.” It meant that J.J. didn’t betray his service or country, and thus, as a free individual, he could have his own ideology, and it shouldn’t offend his government or its people. In the end, Hawke explained a similar stance, that the world is large enough for people of different ideologies to live in peace and harmony without waging war against each other.
For a long time, it was hinted that Justin or his group was somehow responsible for the bombings. But then, in a very intricate scene, a group of soldiers infiltrated a den and threatened an Arabic boy to plant the bombs. The scene suggested that it was government or military propaganda. They tried to frame Arabic men to label them as terrorists and then execute them in the name of justice. Justin told one of the agents that he was a killing machine but that this machine was his voice, not bombs.
Why did soldiers attack J.J.?
Phil informed J.J. that the Russians were also plotting something in Rome that could have helped the terrorists. Phil said that the American military is negotiating for Justin’s body without hinting at Justin’s association with Russians. It meant that he was dead.
J.J. continued his mission to gather evidence. He visited the same shop again to seek evidence about Justin. But this time, he witnessed bloodshed. Someone had shot the peddlers brutally. J.J. was visiting St. Peter’s Basilica when suddenly a bomb exploded at the location. As the smoke settled, two Russian women took him hostage. They took J.J. to a hotel and forced him to film himself with a Russian woman.
When J.J. returned to his apartment, the military infiltrated the flat, and Stephen Gurewitz told J.J. to run. While running from the military, J.J. took shelter in a homeless man’s cardboard house. The homeless man, a secret agent, or a snitch, or something like that, handed over a call that came for J.J. His senior found the footage of J.J. with a Russian woman and thus charged him with treason.
‘Zeros and Ones’ Ending Explained
J.J.’s senior called Justin an anarchist and a communist, to which J.J. said that he was a revolutionary. The line implied that even J.J. believed in his brother’s ideology and thus became a tractor for the great nation. He disconnected the call and asked the homeless guy to run away with him. But he knew that they had no place to hide. When a few soldiers came looking for him, the homeless guy triggered the bomb vest he was wearing, killing himself and the soldiers.
J.J. arrived at Valeria’s apartment to protect her and her daughter. Soon, the soldiers surrounded the building. In the very next cut, Justin’s daughter came out on the street, suggesting that either the military killed J.J. and Valeria or that they arrested them. Their fate wasn’t revealed to the audience.
In the ending byte, Ethan Hawke explained that through Zeros and Ones, they tried to convey that two opposite ideologies can live peacefully in the world. During the COVID situation, we have already witnessed the death and destruction of faith and belief, which is just eroding the planet more. We don’t need to kill people with whom we don’t agree. The world is already dying because of us, and we need to correct our actions to save it from destruction.
Zeros and Ones is a 2021 drama thriller film written and directed by Abel Ferrara.