I spent the entire 97 minute runtime of The Reconstruction of William Zero thinking about Shane Carruth. It’s not a Carruth film, but it feels like the kind of film he would make. It’s discontinuous, scientifically complex while still feeling grounded in the real world, centers around people attempting to reclaim their identities, and features Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) swimming in a pool and looking emotional.
But unlike a Shane Carruth film, I understood The Reconstruction of William Zero my first time through. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how opaque you like your cerebral science fiction.
I’m a fan of a little translucency.
The Reconstruction of William Zero
Director: Dan Bush
Release Date: April 10, 2015
The Reconstruction of William Zero should have been called The Reconstruction of William Blakely. I say this for two reasons: 1) It’s a more accurate representation of the film’s premise, and 2) It’s a better name. The thing that turned me away from the film initially was its title, specifically the “Zero.” It’s too generic, too expository. You know right off the bat that William Zero is something different, probably a clone. And you’d be right. He is a clone. But that’s far too simplistic. (And in the context of the film, it’s honestly kind of nonsensical.) William Blakely, on the other hand? That’s just a name. Not the most interesting name, granted, but the concept of human (re)construction implies cloning without explicitly saying cloning. It hints at a thing. William Zero is transparent; William Blakely is translucent.
So who’s William Blakely? Well, that’s the big question that the film (sort of) tries to answer. He’s a man defined by what he’s done, not who he is. William Blakely killed his son. He was busy talking on the phone and pulling out of his driveway when his son rode by on a bicycle. Soon after, he separated from his wife. He works at the Next Corp, a genetic research facility where they are working on, among other things, the ability to clone live animals. What they really focus on, though, is rapid aging. They take cells and age them 30 years in just a few months. A clone of a 30something year old man is rebuilt in 15 months. Eventually, William stole some samples and cloned himself for reasons that are both depressing and fascinating.
What director Dan Bush tried to do here is extremely difficult, and he should be commended for mostly succeeding most of the time. As might be expected in a film about clones, one actor, in this case Conal Byrne, is required to play multiple roles. Frequently, he is playing multiple roles in the same scene, doing various things with his double. If this were a big budget production, like something David Fincher might do or the excellent Orphan Black, you can use fancy equipment and CG to create a natural feeling. You never even think about them being the same person because you don’t look at the screen and see a trick.
But what about a low budget? You don’t have the ability to stitch together different performances or replace one actor’s head with another’s. So what do you do? Well, you can either do this by using over-the-shoulder shots and other angles that only put one character on screen at a time, or you can set the camera on a tripod and crop multiple takes together. It’s rare that a indie film will so heavily rely on a trick like this, because you start to notice very quickly what is being done to work around the limitations. The few shots that clearly required a more complicated setup aren’t enough to make up for the fact that the vast majority of these sequences look like this:
But I feel for the director, because it’s really fucking hard to do what he’s doing. And given limited resources, I think it works about as well as it could. But I harp on this because, for the first twenty minutes or so, I thought that the film was going to be crushed under the weight of its own ambition. That time was interesting, but once I had become acquainted with its style, I was looking for something more. And I was worried that I wasn’t going to get it. But those worries were unfounded, because not long after, the clones leave each other. They interact with the outside world, and the camera tricks are gone, allowing for the legitimately gorgeous cinematography to come to the forefront. It becomes something far more compelling (both visually and narratively). And so whenever they were together, I was looking forward to the next time they were apart. Even though these should be some of the most emotionally charged moments of the film, they’re really the least.
Which isn’t to say they don’t function at all, but that the impact is muted. Byrne does a good job of putting on the distinct personalities required by each version of himself, and he’s believable all the way through. You can tell almost immediately who’s who, and not just by their slightly different hair styles. It’s difficult to really imagine how a person might handle their clone, but the inherently unrealistic concept never feels that way. Even if the film itself feels a bit stilted, the situations do not. It seemed entirely plausible that someone in a situation like Blakely’s might do something like this, and that this would be how he interacted with his clone. But it’s nonetheless more interesting to see how William and William Zero interact with the world around them and the people they are both forced to meet, all of which is in service of learning more about the way these characters view the world and themselves. Because ultimately it is a film about characters trying to understand Why.
As the narrative flashed forward and backward, cutting between now and then, memories and implausibly well-shot home video footage, I didn’t expect the film to explain itself. I expected a Shane Carruth “Figure it out yourself” attitude. For the first two-thirds, it seems to be going in that direction. It’s only in the final act when things become clear(er), sadly through the use of expository monologues. And I’m conflicted here, because without those monologues, the film would be opaque. Motivations wouldn’t be clear, and that would cause its own problems. Having the monologues is helpful, because though you don’t need the explanation, you want it. At least a little bit. There are hints, here and there, though, and for much of the film those seemed to be enough. But then all of a sudden that changes. You learn something interesting about the way clones work, and then you realize, “Oh shit! That means…!” But because it’s such a fundamental part of the narrative, you don’t get to feel good about figuring it out on your own; it has to be explained soon after. It almost seems to be reaching for two audiences. There are the ones who want a Shane Carruth film, and then there are the ones who don’t. The Reconstruction of William Zero tries to find a happy medium, but I don’t know if that’s even possible.
Which doesn’t mean this is a film without an audience, however. It does, and the audience is far broader than anything Carruth has done (or likely will do). But whatever else it is, it is fundamentally a a cerebral indie sci-fi film, and the kind of people who enjoyed Upstream Color and last year’s Coherence will find a lot to like here. It’s a compelling take on cloning and purpose, about trying to understand what makes you you, and what it might mean to be someone else’s proxy. The narrative questions may be answered, but the deeper ethical and philosophical questions remain. And those questions are fascinating, the sort that could spark days-long discussions in coffee shops all around the country. I’ve been comparing Dan Bush to Shane Carruth as though he’s a lesser filmmaker, but that’s absolutely not the case. The film may feel familiar, but it doesn’t feel like a rip-off or even a deliberate homage or emulation. It feels like another filmmaker coming to the same cinematic conclusions that Carruth has. And that’s exciting, because we need more filmmakers like that, and we need more films like The Reconstruction of William Zero.