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Oeuvre: Gilliam: The Zero Theorem

Oeuvre: Gilliam: The Zero Theorem

It’s possible that The Zero Theorem is little more than a dream of long ago heights, the last gasp of a once-great talent.

Terry Gilliam’s most recent directorial effort, The Zero Theorem, is in many ways an addition to his Trilogy of Imagination, which began with 1981’s Time Bandits, continued with 1985’s Brazil and concluded with 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The Zero Theorem isn’t as strong an entry as any of these other films, and it didn’t come close to reaching their critical reception. But there is something heartening in Gilliam’s return to his wheelhouse.

While some of Gilliam’s work outside of the Trilogy of Imagination is excellent—work like 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King and anything associated with Monty Python—some of Gilliam’s other films have failed to capture the same compelling mixture of weird and whimsical, of abstract and figurative. Some of this is due to Gilliam’s interest in experimentation, but the director has been open and honest about his near-constant pursuit of funding for his projects and jobs he’s taken for commercial reasons rather than artistic ones, projects taken on in order to secure financing for future work.

So The Zero Theorem is a return to the director’s sweet spot in the sense that it feels like it is coming directly from Gilliam’s mind. Here, two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a brilliant but isolated computer programmer tasked with proving the titular theorem. To do so would prove that life itself is meaningless. Though this is heavy subject matter, Gilliam populates the tale with intriguing characters, chief among them Leth himself. And like many other Gilliam pieces, though the world and characters of The Zero Theorem are complex, the story itself is rather thin, with interesting situations linked by tenuous strings (if Gilliam bothers to link them at all).

Perhaps more than any of Gilliam’s other films, The Zero Theorem moves forward with an odd combination of melancholy and hyperactivity. We learn that, prior to the events of the film, Leth has been in a long depression, waiting for a phone call about the nature of life. This is, of course, reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which makes sense as both Godot and the meaning of life are frequent sources of inspiration for Gilliam. But that connection feels deeper now, perhaps because Gilliam himself is aging or because he was afforded more freedom in the making of The Zero Theorem.

Gilliam, working off a script from college professor Pat Rushin, clearly has a fascination with how the digital world affects the human soul, an interest most clearly demonstrated by the appearance of a strange red-and-green suit that connects Leth’s body directly to the internet. It is a purposely overt symbol of Leth’s desire for connection, and it is here that the director best evokes the Gilliam of old. Like his contemporaries David Cronenberg and David Lynch, Gilliam is going for feeling over coherence. His unique spin on this pursuit is that he adds a dose of whimsy to even the saddest moment. Leth’s suit allows for the film’s beautiful ending, which finds Leth reflecting on the flaws of his physical life while pursuing the possibilities of a digital one.

Alongside the classic Gilliam flourishes, a major draw of The Zero Theorem is Gilliam’s eye for talent. Just as he cast a young Uma Thurman and Sarah Polley in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, here he casts a young Lucas Hedges as Bob, the blabbermouth son of the big-boss, Management (Matt Damon), and Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a mysterious beauty who appears to save Leth at just the right time. Hedges, mostly unknown at the time, has since appeared in a number of massive critical successes, and French actress Thierry is an extraordinary talent. Gilliam also rounds out an eclectic cast with notable established actors: a scene-stealing Tilda Swinton plays wacky A.I. psychiatrist Dr. Shrink-Rom; David Thewlis charms as Leth’s middling supervisor; Damon plays Management with a such polished, corporate ennui that he seems to have been conjured from an ‘80s financial thriller; and Peter Stormare, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Ben Whishaw pop up as a trio of nameless doctors sent in to evaluate Leth.

While The Zero Theorem’s classic Gilliam-style signals a return-to-form of sorts, it also suffers when compared to his early work, whose spirit it appears to be mimicking more than actually recreating. It remains to be seen if he’s able recapture the magic with the upcoming The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but until then it’s possible that The Zero Theorem is little more than a dream of long ago heights, the last gasp of a once-great talent.

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