A wretched abhorrence. I guess, when your former best buddy – a friendship seemingly rekindled of late – has gone the relentlessly indie-commercial route to resounding acclaim and box office, your only recourse is to regroup in an art-trash quagmire and stick that script for the next few decades. Vaguely like a less erudite, apolitical, junkie Alex Cox. Or, as Roger Avary described his feature debut, “an art-house film for both the coffeehouse crowd and the exploitation crowd”. I’d hazard Killing Zoe appeals to neither, and I was unimpressed – despite rooting for it, post-Reservoir Dogs and with keen awareness of the Tarantino connection – when it first came out. The mists of time had concealed quite how appallingly, abrasively nihilistic it is, replete with an interminably sloppy, aimless approach to its slender narrative thread that seems to indulge any available bloodletting, shouting/screaming and drug use as clarion calls to… I don’t know? Certainly not a greater truth. Perhaps it’s simply Avary’s sub-Bret Easton Ellis emptiness chic.
Eric: Wake up, sleepyhead. Come on, we have a bank to rob.
There’s a whole 45 minutes before Avary gets to the bank robbery, and as wayward, listless and unprovoked as this section is, it’s way more engaging and interesting than anything subsequently; Zed (Eric Stoltz) beds prostitute Zoe (Julie Delpy) – most randomly, their coupling is intercut with Nosferatu – before being whisked away on a psychotic tour of Paris by psychotic childhood friend Eric (Jean-Huguues Anglade). A whole movie of this might have produced a heroin-fuelled variant on Before Sunrise (I know, that’s lazy, they both have Delpy in), whereby Avary gets to indulge his TV and movie referencing as characters get wasted, without any of the juvenile-trash ultraviolence for the main course.
Zoe: I’m not a prostitute!
Zed: Oh, great, then can I have my thousand francs back?
There are things about this section that are mildly acceptable. Stoltz and Delpy have good chemistry, and the hooker-criminal thing is much less wish-fulfilment fantasy than in True Romance (initially a collaboration with Tarantino called Open Road; Avary would transpose his Zoe ending to Romance at Tony Scott’s request, lending it a more hopeful, fairy-tale quality). The score by tomandandy is effective, as is the depiction of subjective drug use. But the proceedings exhibit a wantonly random, unfocussed quality. This is all obviously intentional, a badge of pride – Avary was 28 when this came out, so “Drugs are so cool” ought to have been a little passé – but why he actually seems to think we’d want to spend time with these people, especially the insane Eric, whom anyone remotely sane would take one look at and run in the opposite direction, is anyone’s guess. Plausibility isn’t high on the agenda generally, though; they certainly wouldn’t agree to a bank heist the next morning, post-heroin high.
The most notable Tarantino-esque element is gang member Oliver (Gary Kemp) hyperactively telling anyone who will listen his pop-culture insights. These include his love for Dixie (“This is real music”), appreciation of Star Trek – the Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for the human brain via its crew members’ personal qualities, and it’s “giving democracy to inert gaseous life forms” – and most famously Avary pet subject The Prisoner: “It’s like we’re all prisoners of ourselves, you know?” Oliver goes on to suggest “But the best episode is A B and C where he’s given three drugs and realises three different realities and er…”
The robbery begins as it means to go on, whereby a bunch of motiveless morons start shooting people randomly and without any suggestion of acumen or judgement. How is it they survived this long? It’s no wonder Avary didn’t make it as a successful director, as he’s entirely disinterested in making anyone likeable, relatable or remotely engaging. Stoltz said “It’s not a movie about humanity. It’s a movie about psychopaths. They shoot heroin, then people, both without regard for anyone else. They are as disconnected from humanity as you can get.” Maybe so, Eric. But other people are able to actually get you interested in reprehensible people. You need more than alluding that they’re Vikings to justify this (Avary would later pen a Bewoulf screenplay, such is his love for bloody mayhem).
Avary seems actively determined to ensure you simply stop watching, or that, if you continue to the end of this – very long – 100 minutes, you earn an award for endurance beyond the bounds of good sense. Honestly, everything that happens in the bank is pretty much randomly tedious – and very, very noisy – and as a director, he displays very little command of the proceedings. You’re just waiting for the gang to self-immolate and quickly realise he’s eager fix upon arbitrary hostages as cannon fodder or indulge his version of black humour (“You must let me go. I’m an American”).
Anglade makes sure Eric is entirely loathsome, so I guess that’s an achievement of sorts. Avary said Zed was “A very Bret Easton Ellis character… he’s immersed in this world, and he’s integrated in this word, but he’s not really part of this world. Not truly. He has a line that he can’t or won’t cross” Avary relates to Zed. And Ellis. Avary is, it would appear, a sociopath. I scanned IMDB trivia, and it seems The Cinémathèque Française called Avary “the Antonin Artaud of cinema” during their Cinema of Cruelty retrospective. He’s a shining representation of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty philosophy, breaking apart the false reality that “lies like a shroud over our perceptions“. That’s right. Only the French could love Killing Zoe.
Avary boasted – I assume it’s a boast – “Killing Zoe never would have happened had I stayed in film school” and “If I had stayed in film school, I wouldn’t have even attempted half of what I did with Killing Zoe. You can only do that sort of thing when you don’t know nobody else ever has”. One can only conclude it’s a shame he didn’t persevere with his cinematic studies, if this is the result. He’s proud he didn’t complete film school so he could fashion crap like this? And saying it’s good to provoke a reaction is no kind of response. Norbert provokes a reaction. 3,000 Miles to Graceland provokes a reaction. Hookers, heroin and hold ups. Classy stuff. To be fair, I thought Rules of Attraction was pretty good (albeit, reading he has an unofficial sequel, in which he had one of the cast going round in character, seducing women, underlines the conclusion that he’s every bit as sociopathic as his characters).
Other turgid nihilism includes a running AIDS motif – “A girl like that will give you AIDS”; “I have AIDS from a needle” – and Avary’s own suggestion, it seems, when asked if Zed “contracted” AIDS from his confrontation with Eric: “Look at the title” (he has said the title means Killing Life, which is how you feel if you’ve suffered through the entire thing).
Zoe: You’ll get well. Then I’ll show you the real Paris.
Still, it’s impressive that he shot the entire picture in LA. So there’s that. And credit where it’s due; he persuaded Tarantino that his playing Eric would be a bad idea. You didn’t think Killing Zoe could be any worse than it is? Imagine it with a Tarantino performance. An awful film.