THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO Review: Absolute(ly) Zero
In the independent film community (and by “independent,” I don’t mean films with megastars produced under boutique shingles hung by major studios; I mean family-borrowed, friend-begged, crowd-funded productions starring and directed by people ready to be the Next Big Thing), 2014 was a banner year for horrors and thrillers. There truly are too many to list here, but horror’s glowing examples include The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Honeymoon, and Lyle, while thrillers list Blue Ruin, The Guest, and Cheap Thrills among its ranks.
This train has continued to roll in 2015, with Spring, It Follows, and Nina Forever reporting from the horror camp, and Man From Reno representing thrillers. But where is science fiction in this Pure Indie genre film renaissance? Last year’s Apocalypse Kiss is a great example, but other than that, titles don’t flow from the memory the way they do for horrors or thrillers. That’s about to change thanks to The Reconstruction of William Zero, a film worthy of a seat at the table with the hot genre indies listed above.
William Blakely (Conal Byrne) is a brilliant geneticist married to his career as much as – if not more so – he is married to his wife, Jules (Amy Seimetz). After another night of crashing on the couch surrounded by research, the scientist, husband, and father gathers himself quickly, gets on the cellphone with the lab, and races out of the house. But in his haste to get back to work, he doesn’t notice his young son on a bicycle in the driveway. A rushed shift of gears into reverse spells tragedy.
Four years later, William finds himself newly emerged from a coma and in the care of his twin brother, Edward (also played by Byrne). He doesn’t know how he wound up in a coma (Edward must tell him he was in a car accident two weeks earlier), he has no memory of his wife (they have been estranged since the accident), and he has no recollection of his role in the fate of his late son. In fact, his mind is so devoid of memories, even from his own childhood, he doesn’t remember the most basic things, like how to eat cereal. Edward must reteach him all of this. But as William works towards rebuilding his memories, with his ultimate goal being a reconciliation with Jules, he learns that Edward has secrets – dark secrets – about his past and his relationship with his twin brother.
To divulge any more would be to deny you the joy of discovery – and what a joy this discovery is. The Reconstruction of William Zero is a dazzling independent science fiction film from director Dan Bush, who co-scripted with Byrne. The writer/director and writer/star are so successful because they offer an incredibly strong three-point foundation.
The first point is a core concept that remains quite true to the sci-fi genre (yet without getting too lost in the granularity of science). Integrated within and around that core concept are other thematic elements that allow for a greater depth of emotion and an overall broader appeal. This film isn’t just about the double-edged sword of science and the great responsibility its great power comes with. It’s also about love and despair and loneliness and regret and sacrifice and redemption. The slick sci-fi candy shell of the film has a dense and substantive center that offers a significant emotional heft I didn’t see coming. Because of this depth, the film never feels gimmicky.
The second point is the pair of powerhouse performances given by Conal Byrne.
The first performance is that of the fully grown man with the blank slate for a brain. Byrne plays William with an incredible balance of frustration and hope. The man with so much tragedy in his past refuses to let the absence of basic knowledge – how to ride public transportation, what an ice cream sandwich tastes like – stand in the way of the chance of reconciling with Jules. He knows he is both at fault and with faults, but he remains undaunted.
The second performance is that of the caring twin brother who might appear to have all the answers, but who always leaves new questions in his wake. Byrne plays the mysterious Edward as the antithesis of William. Yes, the dominant twin cares for his brother, but there is always a question of why. As the story unfolds and William begins the process of discovery, Edward grows more mysterious, more bitter, and more angry. This, at times, calls for a certain physicality to the part, and Byrne delivers here too.
In two unique roles that play against each other for most of the film, Byrne invokes the best elements of character acting and channels those elements into a stellar lead performance.
The third point – and really, the most impressive – is Dan Bush’s direction and his remarkable editing (a job he shares with veteran editor Darrin Navarro). This film is, at its easiest points, an intricate one. At its most challenging points, it’s quite complicated. Bush, through bold choices that exploit (in positive ways) the fact his lead characters are twins, uses a dizzying array of flashbacks – in whole chunks, in tiny flashes, or deftly woven within present-day action – to create a much larger picture that spans years. He also blocks and frames scenes shared by both William and Edward so well that it is easy to forget the characters are played by one man. (Kudos to the sound team for making all of this work, too.)
Only towards the end, when William and Edward scuffle, does the staging look a little rough.
The film is not without its flaws, though, most a result of too much happening at one time, which allows action to spiral out of Bush’s ambitious creative control. The film also has an ending that belies the rest of its indie freshness to offer stale Hollywood resolution. Still, The Reconstruction of William Zero presents its strengths with such surgical precision and thrill-ride excitement that I wanted neither the surgery nor the ride to end.