The setting: an institutional high school in the affluent suburbs. The protagonists: two boys--intelligent, charming and smoldering--with typical suburban lives, including intact families and plenty of spending money. The plot: carnage. Assembling pipe bombs from ingredients purchased at Home Depot and commandeering shotguns slipped from the family cabinet, the boys plan an attack designed to obliterate their classmates. When? The first day on which the temperature is exactly zero, otherwise known as Zero Day.
No, it's not Bowling for Columbine, in which Michael Moore exposed us to actual footage captured by surveillance cameras as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris terrorized their fellow students in Colorado. It's also not Elephant, the Gus Van Sant movie dramatizing a high school shooting. This time, it's Andre Kriegman (Andre Keuck) and Cal Gabriel (Calvin Robertson), the self-named "Army of Two" responsible for murdering 12 students (and then killing themselves) on a sunny spring day in 2001. In anticipation of the media attention that would undoubtedly follow their act, the boys videotaped their intricate, militaristic preparations and stored the tapes in a safe deposit box, to be discovered after their deaths--which, they forecasted, would happen immediately after their "mission" was accomplished.
No matter how many times you see this stuff, it's harrowing. These are kids--smart, funny, attractive kids--and their highest aspiration in life is to blow other people away. The ease with which the boys discuss murder is chilling, and even the most innocent of events (birthday party, family picnic) is tainted with foreboding. Nobody in the boys' lives has any inkling of what they're planning, but we do--we know everything--and our hands are tied. As we watch the boys orchestrate what promises to be an overwhelming act of terror, all we can do is wait and witness the countdown.
When Zero Day unfolds (as it turns out, in sunny May), what we see is excruciating. The boys shoot randomly, viciously, nearly joyfully at anyone in their way. Worse, they taunt victims who've already been shot, even asking, at one point, "Are you dead yet?"
This kind of project is generally dedicated to uncovering motivation. When we see an assemblage of video sorted and edited to tell a story about unfathomable violence, we're compelled to scrutinize the tapes for evidence of motive, searching for an explanation. And indeed, both Andre and Cal assure us that we will do exactly that. Then they tell us that we shouldn't bother. "There are no reasons," Andre says. "You're going to look for them, but you're not going to find them."
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Ben Coccio's movie does point to a host of contributing factors, including social ostracism (for one of the boys, anyway) and the alarming availability of high-caliber weapons. But the point of Zero Day seems to be that, ultimately, there is no explanation for the violence. We can't know what makes two boys commit a massacre, since anything we can point to (and there's very little here by way of childhood abuse or familial dysfunction) must also be true of countless other teens, the vast majority of whom make it through adolescence without killing anyone. If there's a switch that gets tripped--that is, if there's something, any single thing, responsible for rendering a teenager able to kill his peers in cold blood--we can't map it onto a gene or even a diagnosis. It's a mystery.
It's a fair point to make, and worthy of consideration--in a documentary. But the argument loses most of its juice when you learn that this entire film was scripted, and that Andre Kriegman and Cal Gabriel didn't exist. Sure, the movie is "inspired" (if such a word can be used) by the shootings at Columbine, and Coccio did his research; much of what happens is, no doubt, faithful to actual events and people. But it's still a script--a tightly written, well-shot and well-acted script, but nevertheless a fabrication--engineered to look like reality. (Coccio went so far as to name his characters after his actors and to use his actors' actual parents as the parents in the film.) And there's something about that project that feels manipulative and wrong. Coccio puts us through the hideous trauma of the event, going to all efforts to authenticate the form, in the service of showing us that it couldn't have been prevented and can't be understood? Isn't that a bit gratuitous?
Part of the point of Zero Day is that Andre and Cal are media-savvy; they use the tapes to pre-emptively engineer the way their story will be told. Coccio, too, manipulates his media, and not just via the film's form. The home page of Zero Day's Web site reads like a press release for a documentary; it even links to a fabricated sheriff's report. If all of this extracurricular material isn't enough to quench your thirst for blood, you're free to download audio recordings, in which you can listen to a 911 call from "Omar Walters (deceased)," or view video recordings taken from surveillance cameras at the school.
Yes, Coccio is pointing to a cultural obsession; when he hooks us with his sensational plot and meticulous documentation, he's showing us that the taste for drama is ours. He's not the only one fascinated by these kinds of stories; he's merely indulging a fascination that he knows we share. Point taken--but not appreciated.