QOHEN LETH is waiting for a phone call. That's why he's desperate to work from home—every hour he spends clocked in at his soulless day job, crunching numbers (or "entities") for mysterious purposes, keeps him away from the call that could change his life. Played by a hairless Christoph Waltz, Qohen is a true oddball, wearing dark, plain clothes and referring to himself in the first-person plural. Also, he thinks he's dying.
The world Qohen inhabits is a candy-colored dystopia in which personalized advertisements follow citizens around and daily labor takes on the form of compulsively playable videogames. It's an anesthetized society, full of opiates and anodynes to conceal all the dark corners, and it will undoubtedly remind you of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. You'll either be frustrated or delighted by the blatant similarities.
I, for one, was thrilled. Because Gilliam—a madman visionary whose talent has historically been strafed by budget problems and studio interference—hasn't made nearly as many movies as he should have. He's a challenging director who makes unconventional, ambitious work, and his micro-budgeted but effectively gorgeous The Zero Theorem has barely been given a release. (It's currently available to watch via the usual channels of a digital release—On Demand, iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video—but those wanting to see it on the big screen will have to wait for a small theatrical run in September.) That a film this full of vision, ideas, and dark humor, from one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, has been sidelined to the margins should tell you everything you need to know about the current state of cinema. I suppose it's a tiny miracle that we're able to see The Zero Theorem at all.
Qohen pleads with his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to bring his work home with him. When the shadowy Management (Matt Damon) approves, Qohen is assigned to remotely work on the Zero Theorem, an unprovable equation that slowly consumes him. Along the way, he's distracted by Bob (Lucas Hedges), a hotshot wiz-kid programmer who's guarded by clones, and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a lovely woman who entices Qohen into a virtual-reality relationship. The screenplay, by Pat Rushin, touches on metaphysics, faith, and science, but it's Gilliam's visual touches—the scurrying mice that pick up pieces of leftover food, the glowing vials of fluid that represent digital data, the fire-damaged church where Qohen lives—that allow The Zero Theorem to take flight.
It's a tricky watch, though, and full of ambiguity. Those unsettled by Brazil's bleak ending—or those looking for a fun science fiction romp—won't love The Zero Theorem. The Orwellian overtones and cinematic puzzles, however, will give others plenty to mull over. Perhaps, for instance, Qohen's last name, Leth, is a reference to Lethe, the mythological river of oblivion—or, more likely, to Heidegger's notion of the concealment of self. In either case, Leth is a man experiencing a desperate crisis of identity.
There are other problems with The Zero Theorem; the ending leaves too many questions after a single viewing. More troublingly, the nature of Thierry's character is pretty tiresome—she's not much more than a cyberpunk variation on the hooker with a heart of gold. Still, Thierry overcomes the script's contrivances to give her character some real soul, while Waltz is weird and great, showing an awkward, disturbed side that inverts his natural charisma.
But this is Terry Gilliam's show, and his gift for searing imagery and pitch-black satire is given free reign. The Zero Theorem is a shot of pure, unadulterated Gilliam; as such, it should be treasured.