Directed by Ben Coccio
Written by Ben and Chris Coccio
With Andre Keuck, Calvin Robertson, Rachel Benichak, Chris Coccio,
and Gerhard Keuck.
When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold marched into Columbine High School and murdered a teacher and 12 students in April 1999, I wasn’t one of those people wringing their hands and asking how such a thing could happen. My only question was why it didn’t happen on a daily basis. Anyone who’s survived the social tyranny and institutional caprice of high school knows that helpless rage comes with the territory, and many days I fantasized about bringing an automatic weapon to school and spraying the halls with blood.
I have nothing to gain by confessing this, except perhaps a lighter edit. But it may explain why I reacted so strongly to Ben Coccio’s indie drama Zero Day (2002), which screens all this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Based on the Columbine story, it unfolds mostly as a ten-month video diary by two high school misfits, Andre (Andre Keuck) and Calvin (Calvin Robertson), as they meticulously plan their revenge on the school. The two young actors, recruited from high school drama clubs, are so natural I believed them immediately. And unlike the mouth-breathing goons Harris and Klebold were portrayed as, Andre and Calvin are bright, funny, and insightful. I truly enjoyed their company, which made the countdown to their “mission” even more dreadful. I kept hoping they’d change their minds at the last minute, and when they were merrily executing their fellow students in blurry surveillance-camera footage, I caught myself wishing I’d done something to stop them.
For an indie debut feature, Zero Day has done very well, winning major prizes at the Atlanta and Florida film festivals, the Boston Underground Film Festival, and the Independent Spirit Awards. But it may never get the audience it deserves, especially now that its topical thunder has been stolen by Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant’s movie about a Columbine-style school shooting. Both directors aimed for a heightened sense of realism by seeking out nonprofessional actors and asking them to use their own given names on-screen. Ten months after Zero Day premiered at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, Elephant premiered at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or and was lauded as a return to form for Van Sant after such Hollywood misadventures as Psycho and Finding Forrester. With its arty structure and elegiac tone, Elephant was bound to be more palatable to indie distributors than Coccio’s merciless verite-style treatment of the same subject.
Elephant is a beguiling mood piece, gliding dreamlike through the halls of its Portland high school and tenderly surveying a handful of students on the last day of their lives. As Amy Taubin wrote in Film Comment, the movie “takes its cue from the descriptions that survivors and bystanders to horror often give–that time seemed to stand still or events seemed to happen in slow motion.” Like Bela Tarr’s experimental epic Satantango, which Van Sant has cited as a major influence, Elephant often revisits the same encounter from a different character’s perspective. Likewise Van Sant offers multiple explanations for the two killers’ rampage. They’re picked on at school, they’re fascinated by Nazism, they’re repressed homosexual lovers, and–perhaps most dangerous of all–they listen to too much Beethoven.
Coccio rejects all explanations. Early in the film, when the mordant Andre records his 18th birthday party, his mother and father seem as involved as any parent could be with a prickly adolescent. Later on, the quieter Calvin enjoys a camping trip with his family, who seem both caring and down-to-earth. To prevent the media from scapegoating popular culture, they burn all their books, records, and video games, and when they realize that one of them may be tagged the leader and the other his dupe, they agree to split the press releases between them. In their last testament, taped in Andre’s basement two nights before “zero day,” they insist that no amount of counseling could have averted the slaughter. “You can’t cure somebody who has nothing wrong with them,” Calvin points out. Andre adds, “There are no reasons, and you’re all gonna look for ’em, but you’re not gonna find them.”
For formalists, Coccio can only suffer in comparison to Van Sant. Elephant is much more skillful as a narrative, juggling space and time as it weaves together numerous perspectives; by the last shot, when one killer counts “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” to choose his next victim, these random intersections between people have become the very theme of the movie. Coccio too came up with a commanding narrative conceit–the video diary that thrusts us so intimately into Andre and Calvin’s world–but he keeps stretching its credibility or dropping it altogether whenever that suits the story. In one scene Calvin and Andre burglarize a house and, displaying less than their usual common sense, drag the camcorder along; they leave it behind in their car on the morning of the massacre, and Coccio picks up the story with the school’s surveillance cameras, which are accompanied by the audio from Andre’s open cell-phone line to a 911 operator.
But for me, strong characters always trump adventures in form, and thanks to Keuck and Robertson, Calvin and Andre come across as fully realized people. The first scene shows them goofing around with the camcorder in front of their school, introducing themselves and counting to three before they declare in unison, “And we are the army of two!” More tomfoolery transpires when Andre takes an inventory of his father’s gun collection and declares, “That concludes today’s episode of ‘Home Gun Show Review.'” The record of their friendship is so intimate and convincing I was grateful to share in it; it reminded me of my own conspiratorial teenage friendships, which were the only thing that got me through high school. Coccio has cautiously described the movie as “a buddy film,” and the two teens’ sincere mutual regard is clearly the best thing they have going for them, even as it propels them toward an orgy of murder.
Coccio underscores this terrible contradiction when, trapped in the school library with police cars massed outside, the two pals kneel down with their weapons and prepare to commit suicide. Andre, despite all his on-camera boasting, suddenly loses his nerve, but Calvin steadies him, and in a chilling echo of their opening lark they count “one, two, three” before blowing their brains out. After the Columbine shootings Time magazine hysterically labeled Harris and Klebold “the Monsters Next Door,” and it seemed as if every commentator in America wanted to hang a sign on them: they were gay, they were goths, they were Nazis, they were satanists. Zero Day is the most disturbing film I’ve seen in a long time, because it finally arrives at a more likely label: they were human.