Director Terry Gilliam is a bit of an acquired taste. His science-fiction film ‘Brazil’ (1985) is generally regarded as a classic, but his other films either leave audiences divided (such as ‘Twelve Monkeys’ or ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’) or complete indifference (‘The Brothers Grimm’). He’s never been able to cross from the art house circuit into the mainstream, mostly because of his uncompromising and unusual visual style, but Gilliam is anything but dull. Finally following up his minor hit ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ (2009), he returns to sci-fi with ‘The Zero Theorem’, a much smaller production that probably won’t win him any new fans, but give old ones a pleasant surprise.
In some undisclosed time in the future, we meet Quohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a computer hacker who works for a big corporation. What they do doesn’t concern him, Quohen (pronounced Cohen) keeping to himself, preferring to work at home in an abandoned church and await His Phone Call. After begging his dim-witted manager Joby (David Thelwis) to get him a work-at-home assignment, Quohen is given the task of proving The Zero Theorem, an enigma no-one has been able to solve. With the help of Bob (Lucas Hedges), the teenage son of the head of the company and a computer genius, Quohen tries to keep his sanity and his world intact in the face of the impossible task, all the while trying to make sense of his blossoming relationship with an outgoing young woman named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and prepare himself for The Phone Call He Has Been Waiting For.
It seems like a convoluted plot to follow, but one of the real joys of ‘The Zero Theorem’ is the ease with which it unfolds. The film possesses all of the problems Gilliam's films usually suffer from (erratic rhythms, complicated dialogue, style and ideas over narrative and character), but they aren’t as distracting as usual and doesn’t get that much in the way of the narrative. Because of budgetary constraints, the bulk of the film is centred in Quohen’s dilapidated church, giving more time and space to explore the relationships between the characters. Pat Rushin’s screenplay doesn’t spend much time establishing the context for the world and the company Quohen works for, but once it starts to settle into itself, especially with Quohen’s relationships with Bainsley and Bob, it really hits its stride. There’s still the expected erratic rhythms and dizzying visual style, but Gilliam shows unexpected restraint compared to his other films, giving his audience more of a chance to connect with the film. There are some interesting ideas at play, particularly about that oh-so-human search to understand where we all fit, and the quick black humour gives the film all the necessary kicks to keep it moving along. This isn’t Gilliam at his most accomplished (really, apart from ‘Brazil’, when has he been?), but it’s far more accomplished than we’ve come to expect from him of late.
Gilliam shows unexpected restraint compared to his other films, giving his audience more of a chance to connect with the film.
Gilliam is helped by a really great cast, led by a committed and detailed Christoph Waltz. His is the more difficult role in the film, denied the theatrics at offer for the other characters, instead forcing him to retreat into the insular protective shell Quohen makes for himself. It’s also an unexpectedly physical performance, with Waltz being thrown about and put upon by his environment and most of the characters that get in the way of his solitude. Mélanie Thierry is an absolute delight as Bainsley, a youthful and playful breathe of fresh air. She fits in perfectly with Gilliams’ aesthetic and rhythmic style, and her chemistry with Waltz is surprisingly potent. She brightens up every moment she is on-screen and shows a fearless tenacity with the difficult material. Also wonderful is Lucas Hedges, who has emerged from small but memorable parts in Wes Anderson’s recent films. He offers yet another contrast to Waltz with his teenage disregard and angst, and it’s great to see more of him. David Thewlis is having a ball as the utterly incompetent Joby, giving his comic chops a good stretch, and Matt Damon pops up for a great cameo as Management, head of the company and Bob’s father.
As is typical with Terry Gilliam, the film spirals into an unconventional and mostly incomprehensible final act that probably makes more sense to him than us, but at the very least it feels more in tune with the tone and ideas of the film than usual. ‘The Zero Theorem’ isn’t an easy watch, asking the audience to accept many things unexplained and a narrative that leaves no-one behind, but a Gilliam film is one hell of a ride, and this is one of his best in a while. It probably won’t offer much more than frustration to newcomers, but those already familiar with this madman and his propensity for the preposterous will find much to enjoy.