Killing Zoe Review
Whoever called Paris the most romantic city in the world, had never seen it on a bad day. The day in question is Bastille Day, and all is not well in the city of fine wines and smelly cheeses. Professional safecracker Zed (Eric Stoltz) has arrived to pull a back heist with old friend Eric (Jean-Hughes Anglade), a drug-addled Frenchman bordering on insanity. Before hitting the streets for a night of narcotic-laced boozing, Zed indulges in the opposite sex, hooking up with student-cum-escort Zoe (Julie Delpy). Despite the circumstances, the pair hit it off. There’s a definite connection - the pair “fit” together. However, their time is rudely interrupted by Eric, and the night commences.
Eric’s would-be professionals are an odd crew - native Frenchmen Francois (Tai Thai), Ricardo (Bruce Ramsay), Jean (Kario Salem), Claude (Salvator Xuereb), and finally, well-meaning but unstable Brit Oliver (Gary Kemp). With no time to plan the heist, the group go about “living” instead, partaking in a night of excessive partying. As day dawns, they strike. But Zed didn’t expect a problem - one of the bank’s employees happens to be Zoe, and with the police laying in wait, and the threat of Eric killing hostages, he has mere seconds to decide what side he’s on...
The admirable debut feature from writer/director Roger Avary, Killing Zoe is often wrongly attributed to Quentin Tarantino (who serves a mere executive producer credit). Avary’s past with the auteur has been debated more than his films, though I’d be less than thrilled if QT’s name was plastered over my projects. Now that the dust has settled between the pair, Avary has gone on to become a filmmaker with considerable talent. His 2002 effort, The Rules of Attraction, was a mini-masterpiece; showing artistic prowess and a deft handling of narrative. While Killing Zoe isn’t as technically impressive, it is still compelling viewing. Avary tells his tale with a great deal of heart; pumping violence into a blend of wild scenarios and dreamlike states. Like his second feature, it is filled with characters you despise, and situations that stretch credibility. Yet, despite its faults, Killing Zoe has aged surprisingly well.
It’s road to the screen has entered common folklore - the kind of story that comes along all too rarely. Co-producer Lawrence Bender had discovered a remarkable bank location for the shoot of Reservoir Dogs, but Tarantino didn’t need it (heaven forbid his bank heist picture actually shows the heist). After a phone call to Avary telling him about the location, Bender had convinced him to produce his own robbery caper, and in a matter of weeks he’d written the screenplay. It became Killing Zoe, and Avary had a reasonable $1.5 million to bring it to life. To save on the tight budget, the crew wouldn’t film in Paris where the whole picture takes place. Instead, they’d shoot in Los Angeles, and only travel to France to lens the street sequences. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have known. With help from production designer David Wasco, the picture seems authentic when depicting its foreign locales. It’s all part of the strange charm that makes Killing Zoe a minor cult classic.
From the get-go, Avary’s film has a unique electrifying charge. The long trawl through the Parisian streets that highlights the credits is given a moody vibe thanks to Tomandandy’s soundtrack. Attempting to show “the real Paris”, the opening is eerily reminiscent of Polanski’s Frantic. The music does a tremendous job of creating tone - there is a sense of breaking ground here. Never has Paris seemed so foreboding and full of unseen menace. The menace is clearly Zed, though his associates are more despicable. When Stoltz enters the film, we don’t know what to make of this man, and we only learn about his business a good 20 minutes into the story. For now, this American in Paris is a cipher, though we get the impression that he’s not a “bad” guy. Still, there is a sense of the unknown seeping into the frame; Zed feels very alien here.
The scene in which Zoe arrives to pleasure our protagonist, usually divides opinion. It’s tender, bordering on romantic, yet the morals behind the sequence are questionable. Avary points the camera into the seedy bowels of the city - the calmness of the sex scene seems to clash with the atmosphere he’s generated. For extra stylistic effect, the director has Nosferatu playing on a nearby television, as the pair make love. It’s an odd few minutes, and perhaps the strangest sex scene committed to celluloid. When Eric arrives, the films pacing goes up a notch. No time is wasted in establishing Anglade’s character. He throws a naked Zoe out of the room, much to the audience’s disgust; though Zed doesn’t seem too bothered. It’s clear from Eric’s furious energy that we’re in for a rough ride.
The soundtrack soon becomes hyperactive, with Tomandandy’s music taking on new levels of craziness. Avary certainly uses the compositions well, and they would go on to score Rules of Attraction too. As the characters indulge in drugs, the musicians indulge in their bold orchestral strokes. It provides an unsettling rythm to the sights of heroin abuse. And make no mistake, Killing Zoe is drenched in drugs. As Roger Ebert stated, “this is the kind of movie that treats drugs approximately the same way Wimpy treats hamburgers”. We live through the character’s excesses (especially Eric, who has contracted AIDS from the needle). For the films middle portion, Avary lets rip with his wild imagination. He never seems to fear the small budget, providing a hallucinatory trip. The camera pans are smooth and calculated, and a light haze dogs the image as their mental states become blurred. However, despite their laid back attitude, the characters are never shown in a positive light (an argument other critics have raised). Like Trainspotting, we feel nothing but contempt for these men, but we hope Zed can be redeemed.
Once the robbery starts, the film doesn’t slow down. Avary just cranks it up to 11. If Reservoir Dogs had shown its jewel heist, it would no doubt have looked like this. An assault on the senses, the last leg of the picture explodes in violence, foul language and chaos. Anglade has to carry much of the action. His turn as Eric is positively fascinating. A multi-layered character that has no respect for human life, Eric merrily slays hostages and swaggers about the bank with an unnerving determination. While the clichés of the genre are present, Avary’s screenplay is still well constructed. It places Zed in the bowels of the bank; unaware that the situation is steadily growing worse. The fate of the character is always in doubt. We never really know if he’ll get out alive, and in that respect, the conclusion is effective.
Stoltz has always been a reliable actor. His role here is more than demanding. Zed aligns himself with the worst dregs of society, yet somehow, Stoltz conveys his humanity. Which emphasises the films biggest problem. While I disagree with many of the criticisms levelled at Killing Zoe, I can’t ignore the stilted relationship between Zed and Delpy’s beautiful Zoe. It’s the emotional crux of the story, yet very little time is given to developing their “romance”. Delpy is underused, which is a major shame (just look at her performance in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset). But these faults can be forgiven. Killing Zoe is, after all, a bank caper, and in this respect Avary does a tremendous job. Tense and claustrophobic, these scenes linger in the memory.
And through the arterial spray, a message does form. A member of “Generation X”, Avary’s film portrays a sense of disillusionment with force. These men live for the moment, unafraid of consequence. This is where Killing Zoe grabs you by the balls. You know in your heart that these people exist, giving the material a disturbing edge. The director has often commented that Zoe means “Life” in Latin, so the title could translate as Killing Life. Which sums up the film rather neatly. Gritty, relentless and hard to stomach, Killing Zoe won’t appeal to everyone. It may be an acquired taste, but I still recommend it. Severely underrated, Avary’s picture is one you won’t forget...
Killing Zoe has braced an interesting history on DVD. In the last year or so, it was released on Region 1 by Artisan, with a newly-crafted anamorphic print. It was cause for celebration - the distributors planned to release an extras-less package with a full-frame transfer. Thanks to Avary’s strong fan base, and an online campaign, half of the battle was won. The preferred transfer was granted, but the disc only sported a trailer. Earlier this year, fans of the film in France got the deluxe treatment, with a wonderful 3-disc collection.
Unfortunately, despite being part of the Region 2 bracket, we UK followers have been given an entirely new release, with none of the extras that went into the French copy. Released in early August by Universal, this new disc is perfectly respectable on a technical front, though the material leaves a lot to be desired. So, what does it get right?
The Look and Sound
Like our American cousins, Universal present Killing Zoe in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1). Being a fan with an old VHS copy, I was amazed at how well the transfer looks. I don’t own the R1 disc (or the apparently superior French set), but I’ve never seen Killing Zoe look as good as it does here. The colour palette is strong and smooth - it really captures the visual splendour of photographer Tom Richmond, with a deep resonance and texture. Rarely does the low-budget hinder the look of the film, and it stays sharp. Of course, they are caveats for a film 10 years old. Odd flecks on the print can be seen, and a light coating of grain is just about visible. But these faults really are small. Avary crafted a good-looking picture with his limited resources, and the transfer does it justice.
Audio, as you’d expect, isn’t quite as revelatory, but it’s still much stronger than I’d have thought. Showcased in 2.0 Stereo, Killing Zoe has a lot going for it in the sound department. This is a talky film, so in that respect I’m happy that the dialogue is so clear (there were only one or two patches where clarity was lost). The music too, sounds very good, complementing the visuals with its weirdness. A strong effort then, but a 5.1 mix would have been preferable - the heist itself needed an extra punch. That said, Universal’s efforts have been noted, and more than appreciated.
Thankfully, these are animated. Featuring a wash of dark yellows and reds, the menus really come alive, and feel very similar to the film in tone. With the inclusion of music, I really couldn’t fault them.
Here’s where the disc disappoints. There should be more here. Avary was on hand throughout the creation of the French set - I get a slight inkling that he wasn’t consulted by Universal. Killing Zoe is a film that demands a commentary, or at least an in-depth analysis. It’s absence is wrenching, but we’ll have to take what we can get.
Cast and Crew Interviews
Filmed during production, this is your bog-standard EPK deal, but the abundance of behind the scenes footage makes it a worthwhile watch. As the title suggests, it is talking-head heavy. Avary chimes in, alongside Eric Stoltz, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Julie Delpy, and an especially chirpy Gary Kemp. Watch for a quick shot of Tarantino chatting (or possibly ranting) away, and even producer Lawrence Bender gets in on the action. The cast and crew clearly had hope for this picture, and it’s good to see such a feature included.
After that, all we get is the films theatrical trailer, which is pretty beat up. Disappointing really isn’t the word here. I only hope that the French material will be unleashed for a future edition.
A film guaranteed to split audiences down the middle, Killing Zoe is a gutsy, though darkly humorous trip through scum-ridden Paris. Many will probably give it a go due to the tenuous Tarantino link, but this really is Roger Avary’s movie. With a strong, if lacking disc from Universal, it deserves to be seen and reappraised.