Zero Day (2003)

reviewed by
Laura Clifford


ZERO DAY
--------

Andre Kriegman (Andre Keuck) and Cal Gabriel (Calvin Robertson) are best friends making a joint video diary. While both boys seem to enjoy good family relationships, neither seems to have any other friends at school, although Andre is suspicious of Cal's regard for Rachel (Rachel Benichak). These seemingly normal kids are producing videos with shocking content, though - the preparation for and rationalization of their upcoming violent attack on their high school which they have dubbed "Zero Day."

This feature film debut was cowritten (with brother Chris), directed and recorded by Ben Coccio before anyone had heard of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant." While that film was technically glorious, it's final massacre evoked no emotion. Coccio's inexpensive "Blair Witch/Interview with the Assassin" approach sometimes cheats with its own formula, but his film's school shootings pack more punch. Interestingly enough, it is in letting us get to know the assailants, not the victims, that Coccio makes us grieve.

The kids introduce themselves, shooting themselves in front of their high school in what they refer to as 'our town,' an ironic reference to Thorton Wilder's wholesome bit of death-shrouded Americana. Andre celebrates his eighteenth birthday by blowing up fireworks, telling the camera 'this is just ceremonial' and that the serious explosions will come later. Andre's dad (the actor's real father, Gerhard Keuck) tells him 'life isn't always fair' with a heavy German accent. They appear to have a good relationship, open and joking. The only fly in the ointment is that the video camera Andre's been given isn't the one he wanted, even after he told his folks about a specific model. Cal's family (also featuring the actor's real parents, Pam and Steve) is also a big, happy clan - an all-American crew.

But these kids are serious. Cruising the Internet, the boys demonstrate their own version of the Anarchists' Cookbook as they build bombs. Andre's cousin Chris (cowriter Chris Coccio) becomes an unwitting accomplice when he teaches the boys how to target shoot and neglects to hide his hiding place for the key to his closeted weapons arsenal. Their tapes begin dated for historical purposes and Andre's procured a safety deposit box to store all but the last. He's thought about their analysis in the media as well, selecting Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Wolf Blitzer for access to their tapes after their death. The self-proclaimed Army of Two destroy their video games, DVDs and CDs in a bonfire to thwart psychological profiling.

Zero day, they explain, is so named because they intend to attack on the first day that starts off at zero degrees, but an amusing anecdote is told as to why that was sidelined and the boys choose May 1 instead. Much to Andre's chagrin, Cal goes to the prom on April 29th with Rachel. Two days later, after making sure the camera is correctly positioned on their car's dash to capture their entry into the school, the boys go on their rampage. Coccio ingeniously has Andre make a 911 call to proclaim their intent, then leave his cell phone on, so that the unfolding events are shown via the school's security tapes and narrated by the 911 operator (Samantha Philips).

The video diary conceit has the usual spate of problems. These amateurs never get flaccid footage, even accounting for in-camera editing. A tape from inside Cal's prom limo isn't defined as non-diary footage, but that of another prom-goer, although its content is important, defining Cal as a little known guy who is the friend of someone the other teens think is 'psycho.' The duo contradict themselves constantly - burning their belongings, but showing them to the camera, using code words for explosives on camera while they clearly are making them, etc. Andre's father purportedly tapes him driving home from work on prom night to provide some ironic references to a future that won't be coming, but the obvious manipulation is distracting. The counter on the security tapes continues to tick down during dissolves.

Coccio's work with his actors, however, is at least as good if not better than Van Sant's. Andre Keuck gives a strong performance as the alienated teen. He's confident giving reasons for the Army of Two's vendetta, even while trying to assure his parents that there are no reasons. He makes scary sense describing the idiocy of being termed a 'faggot' for the offense of wearing a shirt from J.C. Penney. Keuck is also subtle in several scenes when a homosexual longing for Cal is implied. Calvin Robertson is the quieter of the two, the one being led even though they distinctly state there is no leader. He has a beautifully delivered soliloquy where he explains that he and Andre never agreed to go and shoot the school, that the understanding was just there between them, yet when Andre forcefully states that he could never have acted with anyone other than Cal, Robertson's returned sentiment is nicely nuanced, letting us know he is less committed.

"Zero Day" bears uncanny resemblances to "Elephant" with its implied homosexuality, a Nazi poem delivered by one boy and the odd use of the word 'fun' to describe the upcoming horror, but unlike Van Sant, Coccio openly explores motivation. His writing can be elegant, such as when Andre says that although their actions will seem to be at cross purposes with his words, that 'We're trying to show people what they should value. Respect and value your fellow man.' Of course, there's also vengeance and ego involved, as demonstrated by Andre's anger over insults and words about making their mark. Their victims are symbolized during the excitingly shot target practice sequence, where a stuffed Bambi toy is used as a target.

Coccio tacks on an unnecessary coda, where a group of survivors burn down the memorial markers noting Andre and Cal amidst those they shot down, but his choice of identifying with the perpetrators was an unusual gambit that paid off. As the 911 operator repeats 'I can get you out of this, just pick up the phone,' we realize that the lives of the shooters were as wasted as those of their victims.

B+

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