Zero Day wants to upset you. Following two high school gunmen as they prepare and execute an attack on their classmates, the film goes out of its way to show you a world where monsters need no reasons, where nothing can explain the killers away.
Shot in a self reflexive documentary style, the film consists mostly of the two gunmen, Cal (Calvin Robertson) and Andre (GW freshman Andre Keuck), narrating their battle plans on a camcorder as they prepare to launch an assault on their high school. The shaky, handheld camera work, under the direction of first-time writer-director Ben Coccio, can be something of a double-edged sword. It can add to the illusion that this is all actually happening, but at other times the quavering camera is just distracting. The film starts to feel like any other home movie, riveting in some places and painfully stagnant in others.
The film follows Cal and Andre throughout the planning stages of their campaign toward Zero Day (the first day the local temperature hits zero degrees), and the day their shooting spree begins. Along the way Cal and Andre show the audience how to procure guns, refit them for easier concealment and make pipe bombs. In the film’s most powerful scenes, they offer critiques of previous school shootings and rail against the notion that video games, television or any other outside influences have driven them to kill.
“You can’t watch these characters and say ‘Well, obviously they did it because of violent video games’ because a lot of people play these games without shooting up a school,” Keuck said. “We went into it knowing that there was no cut-and-dry reason. We knew that there was no definite reason behind their actions, so we decided to just try and show that.”
The film is carried by Cal and Andre, who are always on screen and have to compete with the incessant bob and weave of the camera for the viewers’ attention. The two have great chemistry together, coming from the actors’ early days doing Shakespeare back home in Connecticut. They look horrifyingly at ease addressing the camera, making the characters at once genial and monstrous.
“Ben Coccio didn’t want kids with bad habits,” Keuck said. “Mainly people, for example, who were from New York and did some acting work but picked up things that were unnatural. Ben really wanted a more naturalistic look to the characters.”
Part of the naturalism of their performances comes from the dialogue, much of which was largely improvised by Keuck and Robertson on the spot.
“(Coccio) realized that as someone in his mid ’20s, he wasn’t going to be able to write dialogue for high school kids. So he’d give us the script right before we shot a scene, ask us to improv how we would say it, but would make sure that we say certain lines. He’d give us key points on how he’d like it done, but I’d say around 85 percent of the dialogue was improv, with a very, very, very detailed outline.”
The ease with which Cal and Andre speak about doing such terrible things and later carry them out is where the film finds much of its power. The intimacy to which the viewer is treated during the planning stages easily trumps the film’s climactic sequence, shot entirely though security cameras. The security cameras sterilize what had up to that point provided a very raw, personal drama. In the end, the blood and corpses are never as compelling as the monsters that makes them and their stark refusal to give the viewer the comfort of a reason why.
You can check out “Zero Day” in Dupont Circle’s Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge.