Not to be too morbid here, but [Cal’s] mom and dad have just put all this time, money, and effort into making his teeth look good, and later on, he’s going to blow his teeth through his skull.
—Ben Coccio, commentary, Zero Hour
It’s gonna be unreal, it’s gonna be beautiful.
—Cal (Calvin Robertson), Zero Day
“This movie,” says writer-director-editor Ben Coccio of his first feature, Zero Hour, “is like a frontloaded magic trick. You start off with everything as real as possible, so that when you get to that last scene when everything is fake, people accept it more readily as real.” Made in the wake of the Columbine shootings and release now just after the shootings on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, Coccio’s movie looks both chillingly insightful and despairingly naïve. And this contradiction is exactly right: the movie (any movie) can’t begin to explain such horrors, but it might observe and consider the many elements that surround, influence, and distress the kids involved.
Structured as a series of tapes made by two killers, left in a safe deposit box to be discovered after their planned massacre and suicides, Zero Day emphasizes at once its amateurish seeming authenticity and, post-Blair Witch, its obvious contrivance. It’s a smart movie but also a willfully blind one, frustrating and provocative. “This is our high school, located in our town. It is our worst enemy,” says Cal at their project’s start. The boys pose for the camera: “And we are the army of two: huhh!” While their self-imaging is chilling, it’s also silly, a smart-ass reworking of the commercial catchphrases deployed by military recruiters.
For the Home Vision DVD, Coccio and Andre Keuck (who plays Andre), joined later by Calvin Robertson (Cal), note repeatedly the film’s doubleness, the kids’ self-awareness and the seeming intimacy they allow viewers, set against the boys’ increasing distance, their inability or refusal to say what’s troubling them. The boys remain somewhat circumspect regarding their future. “Zero Day” is the code name they give their “mission,” and they’re open about the “myriad of supply depots” where they keep bombs they’ve assembled, shotgun shells, bottle rockets, and fake IDs, as if they imagine the possibility of escape. But they don’t. As the days count down, it’s clear they have no intention of getting away with a fake passport—they’ve seen these items in movies, and so they have them, too. They joke about previous shooters’ lack of planning or the suggestion that they endure “anger management.” They’re not so much angry as undone. They have no hope for a better emotional life ahead, and so they obsess on revenge, on anyone who happens to be in their way. (Coccio notes here, “This pipe bomb scene is the nexus of the movie… like a microcosm of the rest of the movie. There’s no whys, it’s just how to… Whatever decision brought them to this point that they’re ready to commit this horrible massacre, happened before the movie starts.”
The absence of “whys” is at once deflective and unnerving. Looking into his own wide-angled “confessional” camera, Cal accuses you: “This is the machine’s pupil. I’m staring right at you through the tape. We’re gonna leave you all behind, just sticks in the mud that Andre and I have made. We see more than you do.” The fear that you don’t see, and the costs that this blindness generates, can hardly be missed, even as the film offers to let you off the hook.
On one level, this self-preservation is aesthetic. Coccio says in the commentary, “If you look through hundreds and hundreds of hours of anybody’s home movies, most if it is going to be as boring as sin, but every now and then, you’ll find a couple little shots that are beautiful in their own way or that say something really kind of interesting in their own way. Obviously this goes beyond that because these guys are planning this horrible high school massacre.”
On another level, though, the distance is built into the narrative. Even if you feel close because of what Coccio calls “the whole first person kind of feel and the video and everything like that,” eventually you realize “how far away you are from them, because they never tell you. They never tell you, really, anything.” Keuck adds, “Because no matter how much they tell you, you don’t know what they’re not telling you.”
Repeatedly, the film runs into moral dilemmas, including responsibility and voyeuristic interests. Coccio hasn’t seemed to figure out his own interest, wanting to explore the kids’ thinking but loathe even to look like he’d “sympathize” with boys who seem “monsters.” He says, “Even though I don’t propose any reason why and I am obviously coming from these guys’, these two characters’ perspective, and I am trying to make them watchable, I in no way want to make someone who would do something like this necessarily sympathetic. That’s an impossible task anyway.” It’s probably not, but his problem is symptomatic: representing is not necessarily condoning, and articulating is not necessarily agreeing, but as anyone who has thought about fictionalizing recent events—involving terrorists, for instance—has run smack into the same wall. In the current climate, you need to maintain a moral, emotional, and absolute distance from such subjects. You cannot look like you’ve “identified.”
Just so, the film maintains a visible distance from the boys even as it appears to provide their “perspective” (this is underlined at film’s end, when Andre and Cal leave their camera running in the car while they scamper off to the high school, and the film overtakes them via the surveillance cameras—harsh black and white footage, gazing down on the shooters from a distance and with counters running at the screen’s bottom, clinicizing the event (and recalling the Columbine footage), down to the moment when they kneel and blast their heads off.
Throughout the film, they fantasize about their own deaths. Their night-vision cameras make them look ghastly pale green, like “ghosts.” They visit graveyards, practice shooting with a cousin who has no idea what they’re up to. As Coccio points out, this is a terrible betrayal of “the family who love them… I grew up in a rural area,” he defends the cousin. “This is like hick pastime, you go out and shoot crap.” And, he adds, he never shot anyone.
Cal and Andre, though, have a sense of mission in their shooting practice. They see their endeavor as a “military procedure”; unlike other shooters, they don’t put up a website or try to be caught. Says Andre, “You might be thinking, well they’re taping this, so of course they want it to be found, you’re right we do want it to be found. We don’t want it to be found until we’re ready.” They can only be “ready” in death, according to their scheme, and so the film adds a coda, after the boys’ tapes and the surveillance tapes, where a group of kids tape themselves among the 14 crosses set up to memorialize the tragedy. Here again, the handheld imagery seems “authentic,” but also judgmental, not just of the killers, but of those who are understandably outraged. The group sets Cal and Andre’s crosses, already graffitied, on fire.
Coccio closes his commentary by trying to explain his own thinking here. Though the burning crosses “is so loaded, such a racist image,” he says, but he’s “putting it in a different context.” As one of the cross-burners, identified by Coccio as “a Pakistani,” yells, “Burn in hell motherfuckers,” the filmmaker suggests that his “race” is part of this context switching. “It eliminates the race issue,” Coccio says, “Because he’s not white.” Sadly and alarmingly, this description doesn’t come close to what’s going on here. Race, prejudice, pain, and fear: all these “issues” remain at a difficult distance.