Killing Zoe (United States/France, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"I have always liked European cinema and, originally, I was going to make this for $200,000 on 16mm black and white. So I decided to write a movie with a lot of French language and use subtitles, and them make it a violent action picture... For the most part, I wanted to write an extreme example of what my generation is about - people who are living for the moment. I know there are optimists out there, those who are trying to make things better, but it's the momentum of a diseased culture that's difficult to stop. At the same time, [Killing Zoe] is still kind of a comedy. You really have to look at the craziness for its comic value."
- Roger Avary, writer/director of Killing Zoe

Zed (Eric Stoltz) is a safecracker who has to choose between two offers to show him "the real Paris": one from old friend Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) who wants him to participate in a Bastille Day bank robbery, and one from Zoe (Julie Delpy), a prostitute who has fallen for him. Zed's decision and its ramifications form the framework for Roger Avary's ultraviolent and disturbing debut feature.

Avary, who is given credit for participating in the writing of True Romance and Pulp Fiction, doesn't have quite the style of friend and sometimes-collaborator Quentin Tarantino (who, along with Reservoir Dogs producer Lawrence Bender, is listed as an executive producer). Killing Zoe covers similar ground - examining the criminal "element" of society - but lacks the crispness of dialogue that has become one of Tarantino's trademarks. With the exception of the bedroom conversations between Zed and the title character, very little of what's said in this movie is memorable.

The title is somewhat misleading, as the movie is only tangentially about Zoe. That's not to say that she doesn't have a pivotal role in the way the heist is played out, but Avary chooses to devote far more of his attention on Eric, a character who has slipped into madness through drug use and a death sentence from AIDS. By the time we meet Eric, he's strung-out and out-of-control, and certainly not the kind of person any self-respecting thief would want to be working for on such a high-risk venture.

Avary uses odd camera angles, distortion, and a cacophonous score to emphasize the chaos of the word he has created. The effect is unsettling and, as such, singularly effective. Unusual imagery abounds, including back-and-forth cuts during a sex scene involving Zed and Zoe with clips from Friedrich Willhelm Murnau's Nosferatu.

One of the chief disappointments with Killing Zoe is the lack of screen time devoted to the most fascinating aspect of the film - the relationship between Zed and Zoe. These two characters work well together, but Avary seems more intent upon probing Eric's distorted world. There is too much untapped potential here not to be mourned over.

Eric Stoltz, whose career seems to have turned towards independent productions, gives another strong performance (in the wake of those in Bodies, Rest and Motion and Naked in New York). Stoltz thrives in low-key roles like this, in some ways working better as a mirror to those around him than as an individual in his own right. His reaction shots to Eric's brutality are notable, revealing as much about the man as does Anglade's fierce portrayal.

As was the case in White, Delpy is underused. Despite developing the most interesting personality in the film, she has an amazing lack of substantial scenes. Considering how good she is in what Avary has given us, it becomes frustrating to see her reduced to a non-entity for the bulk of the movie.

Ultimately, the greatest fault with Killing Zoe may lie in Avary's ambition. In trying to do too much (crime film, love story, psychological thriller, and dissection of an alienated generation) with a ninety-minute motion picture, his focus becomes blurred. Regardless, with a style that alternately recalls John Woo and Sam Peckinpah, and a tone that is nihilistic in the extreme, he has created a movie that, while obviously flawed, isn't easily forgotten.

Killing Zoe (United States/France, 1994)

Director: Roger Avary
Cast: Eric Stoltz, Julie Delpy, Jean-Hugues Anglade
Screenplay: Roger Avary
Cinematography: Tom Richmond
Music: Tomandandy
U.S. Distributor: October Films
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: Some English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1