Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: Pat Rushin
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges
Terry Gilliam is a masterful worldsmith. We can all agree if it was the Time Bandits director who had designed the universe things would be much more entertaining, and probably just generally better. Never has that skill been put to use to such a degree as in his new film The Zero Theorem. This movie is dystopian no doubt, despite the fact that everyone seems to be having a great time. Everyone that is, aside from the protagonist Qohen Leth (played masterfully by Christoph Waltz who shows the world that he can absolutely murder any film Tarantino or no) who lives alone in an abandoned church waiting for a mysterious phone call.
It is clear from minute one that the hairless Leth is not quite 100% sane. To be honest, the percentages probably play closer to insane. At one point during the film he mentions that his diet precludes all foods with any sort of flavor. That is the mark of a madman if ever I’ve seen one. Dude doesn’t even eat pizza! What sort of life is that!? When he does leave his home, Qohen’s only destination is work at Mancom. A megacorporation run by Matt Damon’s character; only ever referred to as Management. At Mancom, Qohen works as an entity cruncher. This is like a numbers cruncher but in Qohen’s own words “infinitely more complex.” His supervisor Joby is played with gleeful madness by the always entertaining David Thewlis. Joby is also “a few raisins short of a full scoop” (Mancom is a “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps” kind of place), and we quickly learn just how he got so nutty. Joby used to work on the Zero Theorem.
The titular theorem is an attempt to mathematically (I guess) justify the fact that all things in the universe will eventually become nothing, and therefore, all things in the universe are nothing. A doctor says to Qohen during his psychological evaluation “it could be said that life is an infection corrupting the perfect organism of death.” That’s fundamentally what the Zero Theorem is trying to prove. It is no surprise then that the “zippity t” has driven many an entity cruncher mad. Qohen accepts the assignment from management despite this because it allows him to work from home and wait for his call.
During his descent into these bleak calculations Qohen establishes a relationship with the beautiful Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry). She attempts to reintroduce him to a world of feelings while he refuses at every turn. Eventually, she provides him an escape from his perpetual fear (a great gag involves Qohen’s shrink listing all of his contradictory fears “a fear of open spaces, a fear of closed spaces . . .”) through virtual reality. In the digital space, their relationship only intensifies. Inadvertently this makes the implications of the Zero Theorem all the more horrifying as the meaninglessness it espouses would contradict the digital joy of Qohen and Bainsley’s relationship.
This movie is about a lot of things. I can’t really explain the thematic work in detail, which makes me pretty sad as it’s my favorite thing about most movies. I need to watch it a few more times before that becomes clear. It’s visually stunning, fantastically written and extraordinarily well performed. That I can say definitively. I can also say that it’s a movie about the millions of little deaths that we all suffer as we go through life. Our selves are never the same for long, and every time an old one dies a new one emerges to replace it. This why Qohen’s last name is Leth, alluding to the mythological river of forgetting and rebirth. This is why Qohen spends most of the film speaking in first person plural. It’s also why this movie is so damn powerful.