Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a drone working for Mancom, a number-cruncher with a catalogue of phobias and neuroses who longs to work from home in the hopes of receiving a divine telephone call; one that will give meaning to his woeful existence. He missed that call once. He’s not going to let it happen again. It’s the near future, where old-world architecture collides with J-Pop music video fashions. Neon and marble. There really isn’t a place for curmudgeons like Qohen anymore…
The Zero Theorem is the new film from Terry Gilliam, and it sees the director returning to themes and aesthetics that he has felt comfortable with time and again. The plot, which takes plenty of time out to lampoon petty bureaucracies, is strongly reminiscent of Brazil, while Qohen’s shimmering bald head and rinkydink grip on his sanity recalls Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys. And yet to dismiss The Zero Theorem as a mere rehash of past glories would be to miss some of its inherent and potent charms.
Qohen is granted his wish to work at home, reassigned to work on the titular conundrum, but he soon finds that getting everything you asked for isn’t always a good thing. His problems seem to multiply, as cracking the zero theorem consumes his life and compounds his anxieties. He needs help. Cue the curious interventions of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), an infectiously exuberant pixiedreamgirl, who seemingly buys all her outfits from Cosplays’R’Us. But is she really a potential source of salvation, or just another snoop at the behest of The Man…?
Waltz, often the bridesmaid but rarely the bride, proves himself more than game with a lead role here, tackling the barmy notions thrown at him by Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin with aplomb. His Qohen is a twitchy, stifled concoction of mannerisms and verbal tics, a man wrapped up in his own particular skin. This tale of tested faith and fleeting human connection lives largely on his performance.
Not that he isn’t ably supported by Thierry, equally committed to all kinds of quixotic behaviour. She sparkles throughout. While David Thewlis makes much of his role as Qohen’s overbearing supervisor. But, like a lot of Gilliam’s recent work, there are mixed results elsewhere. It’s a testament to Gilliam’s popularity that the likes of Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon are happy to take minor roles in the film’s peripheral vision. Unfortunately they don’t quite sit right. Swinton in particular is miscast as an online shrink, and a scene in which she performs a rap curls the toes. Damon, meanwhile, will be largely remembered for his spectacular wardrobe over the traits of his character (though this is, arguably, intentional).
The Zero Theorem is surprisingly claustrophobic, largely taking place in one location – Qohen’s home. He lives, fittingly, inside a dilapidated church crammed with wires and gizmos. Gilliam presents this busy, sinuous lair from endless angles, swooping in on the man as the weight of expectations (both from within and without) bear down on him. When we do leave this space – particularly in the film’s second half – it feels like a vacation, not least during a series of virtual reality excursions.
It all adds up to a strange viewing experience that stands proudly outside of mainstream expectations, closer in feel to the warped worlds that David Cronenberg used to trade in – Qohen’s computer system seems to run in part off of biological materials, suggesting a kind of perverse synergy that the Canadian body-horror master would be proud of. And while the production design is, as ever, second to none, the cramped confinement makes it feel like a smaller film, one shrewdly constructed around the kind of budget (sadly) befitting such curious cinema.
The film suffers, as Gilliam’s movies are prone to, from an itchy unevenness that goes beyond the performances. The last act is a muddled affair, searching for the profound by largely offering riddles. It’s a move that feels strangely strategic, as though Gilliam and Rushin weren’t wholly confident that the picture would stand up without a dose of surrealistic free fall.
It’s a shame as largely The Zero Theorem is a success, especially when playing to it’s simplest strengths – the interactions between Qohen and Bainsley. It is here that we wait for Qohen to see that the answers to his problems won’t come from a mythical callback, but reside in communication with others and the building of genuine connections away from his computer’s Tetris-like algorithms.
It may not be perfect – when will anyone learn that teenage sidekicks are, frankly, irritating? – but there’s a hell of a lot of charm here. More than enough to make The Zero Theorem worth investigating, and something of a course correction for Gilliam after the rambling whimsy of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It may sea-saw wildly, but it’s never dull.