'Zero Day' depicts reality of high school violence
Published: Friday, January 23, 2004
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
Five years after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their school and began shooting, Columbine once again found itself in the media spotlight. Just last week, police arrested two teenagers in Dutchtown, La., for an alleged plot to do the same thing to their high school on the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy. Several independent films have been released that deal with the subject of school violence, each one offering a unique perspective on the issue, from Michael Moore's controversial documentary Bowling for Columbine to Gus Van Sant's Elephant. However, we seem to be no closer to answering the question that has eluded us since 1999. Why?
Zero Day, by director Ben Coccio, is the fictional video diary of teenagers Andre Kriegman and Cal Gabriel. On May 1, 2001, this "army of two" executed a meticulously planned attack on their high school, shooting and killing 12 people before turning their guns on themselves. Closely mirroring the events of Columbine, Zero Day is a disturbing and provocative movie that rejects the exploitation of school shooters, yet also doesn't try to rationalize their behavior.
Unlike any school shooting before it, the Columbine shooting involved a year's worth of careful planning, complete with a video diary by Harris and Klebold. This kind of planning was unique and almost cinematic in its tragic potential.
With Zero Day, Coccio creates a new perspective on what kind of person is capable of committing such a horrifying act, rejecting the typical media portrayal of violent-minded teenagers.
"The media has always been fixated on Columbine, but more importantly, so too, I think, is our society. You can't watch Zero Day in a vacuum – you know what it is ‘supposed' to be about, and that is a big part of watching a movie like this, whether you see it now or years from now," Coccio said.
The film isn't so much about the plot itself, which Andre and Cal refer to as "Zero Day," as it is about Andre (played by Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson). The tapes they "leave behind" reveal much about their lives and personalities, while revealing virtually nothing about their motives.
The film itself acts as a study of contrasts. We see the incredible level of detail that goes into their planning, but we also see the haphazard way that they handle the camera, on which they are relying to tell their story after Zero Day. Andre films as Cal gets his braces off, a traditional event in the life of a teenager, then we see the two of them explain step by step how to assemble, build and use pipe bombs. The film terrifies by contrasting the teenagers' everyday lives with the cold-bloodedness of their plan. As was the situation at Columbine, no one could see it coming until it was already too late.
Zero Day is an intimate movie and completely believable. Andre and Cal's parents are played by the actors' real-life parents, and every character in the movie has the first name of the actor or actress who plays them. This helps create a completely natural chemistry amongst the cast, so natural that you have to remind yourself that it's just a movie. The dialogue is organic, real and completely devoid of traditional melodramatic emotion. This is due in large part Coccio's instruction that the actors act as they normally do, not as how they thought their characters would.
"I think the ‘first-person' approach really enhanced the viewer's relationship with the characters and the suspension of disbelief. I think it also ends up making a subtle comment on a media savvy and saturated culture," Coccio said. "It brings into sharp relief the things we experience in real life that are much more terrifying than our dark fantasies."
And much like in real life, there are no easy answers in Zero Day. The film carefully avoids the temptation of offering a simple explanation for Andre and Cal's behavior. We don't see them listening to Marilyn Manson, we don't see them playing violent video games, and we don't see them being picked on by jocks. They address the camera, telling us not to look for reasons or explanations behind their actions because there aren't any. They go so far as to burn almost all of their possessions a few nights before the attack, to prevent the police and the media from assigning blame to their music, games or clothes.
When the day finally comes, Andre and Cal leave the camera running in the car as they enter the school carrying their arsenal with them. In what is perhaps the most disturbing sequence I've seen in a long time, we see the attack carried out through the motionless security cameras placed throughout the school. Throughout the entire attack, we hear a diligent 911 operator try again and again in vain to reason with the shooters, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they can't hear her. In the end, when they have no one left to shoot, they take their own lives.
The film is chilling in its reality. It's hard for us to think of Columbine shooters Klebold and Harris as real people because of the distance we feel between our lives and theirs. Media influence has made them appear totally inhuman in the public eye, but the fact remains that they were real people who looked and acted just like everyone else. Try as the news networks might, there is no one reason behind the Columbine shooting. Coccio, both as writer and director, realizes this and creates a movie that forces the audience to become intimate with two school shooters. This psychological intimacy is part of what makes the movie so horrifying — the rest comes from the idea that some things are truly without reason, that evil can and will spring up with little provocation, and that such terrible violence can come from the most unexpected places.