Let me tell you about Killing Zoe. So the story goes, way back when they where nobodies, director/writer Roger Avary, and Quentin Tarantino worked in a video club in Los Angeles called ‘Video Archives’, a gathering place for cinephiles and future film directors and producers. After working there, they both went on to have successful film careers. Avary and Tarantino collaborated on a couple of films: Reservoir Dogs (1992), True Romance (1993) and Pulp Fiction (1994), though for whatever reason, Avary would be uncredited on some of these projects. Avary once said he couldn’t hang out with Tarantino because “he sucks stuff from me” and the pair never collaborated again.
Since then, Avary has tread his own path in Hollywood. His first attempt at directing was Killing Zoe, a bank heist movie not totally unlike Reservoir Dogs, in that it’s a heist movie in which everything gets blown to hell. Killing Zoe has quite a colourful and serendipitous history.
Film producer Lawrence Bender was scouting locations for Reservoir Dogs when he came across an abandoned bank that he felt would be perfect to film in but wasn’t quite the right fit for Dogs. So he called up every writer he knew and asked if any of them were working on a screenplay that took place in a bank. When Avary got the call, he flat out lied and said yes. Two weeks later he had a rough draft for Killing Zoe ready to go, crafted with ideas he pulled from his own experiences travelling through Paris. Being his first major film, everyone from the crew to the producers were unsure of Avary’s ability to pull off such a feat. Those funding the movie stayed on set for the first few days just in case they needed to take things over. However, by day two, they realised their hesitations were unwarranted. The actors and crew commented on how impressed they were by the novice director’s confidence to make big decisions quickly and definitively.
There are two kinds of bank heist movies out there: those in which the heist is spectacularly pulled off, and the ones where everything goes wrong. Killing Zoe is one of the ones where everything goes dramatically wrong.
First, we meet Zed (Eric Stoltz) a safecracker who travels to France to help an old friend named Eric (Jean-Hughes Anglade, Betty Blue) pull off a bank heist. All he has to do is break the safe, get in, get what they want, get out. The heist sounds simple enough to Zed, especially when the tough stuff will be left to Eric and his gang of misfits. All Zed has to do is open the safe. On the surface there is not much to the plot of this film except the question of: will they pull off the heist?
With Killing Zoe it definitely feels like you are watching a Tarantino film. There’s sex, violence and a shit ton of drugs—I mean seriously too many drugs, which thankfully has the opposite effect to glorifying—but Killing Zoe is a bitter affair. There’s little in the way of humour to balance the grit. Avary seems to have an acidic outlook on things, and it’s because of this that Killing Zoe seems less ‘natural’ somehow. It is stressful to watch, and without the type of nervous giggles you reserve for scenes like, ‘bring out the gimp’ in Pulp Fiction, it is not an enjoyable experience. Save for Eric Stoltz’ ‘Zed’ and Julie Delpy’s ‘Zoe’, most of the characters in this film are wholly despicable and unnerving people. There are no anti-heroes to love to hate or hate to love.
Before Zed reconnects with old pal Eric, he arranges to meet an Escort, Zoe. They immediately connect and have mind-blowing sex. Excellent start! That is until Eric comes storming into the room and coldly kicks Zoe out of the room despite her being completely naked. We can already tell that Eric is a dick.
The evening descends into a nauseating delirium of heroin, cocaine, pills, and an atomic bombs-worth of cigarettes. It soon becomes apparent that mild-mannered Zed doesn’t have as much in common with the anarchistic and deranged Eric as he used to.
“I’m going to show you the real Paris”. — Eric to Zed
Killing Zoe’s whole second act is an ode to excessive drug use, and—even to those who don’t have an aversion—it will get to you after a while. This crazy night is a great part of the film; you really do feel immersed with these guys who like to live on the edge. They’ll try every drug they can, push the limits of what their bodies can take and do not care who is watching them do it.
Zed teeters on the brink of an overdose for much of this sequence while Eric and his cohorts inexplicably feed him—literally feed him—more and more pills. Meanwhile, Eric himself enthusiastically tries to leap beyond that precipice with a suicidal and cavalier approach to heroin. The film mirrors and symbolises a reliance on heroin in a myriad of ways. Zed opens up his bag of gear used to crack safe doors, with the same style of preparation a heroin user goes through to shoot up. As Eric considers the prospect of facing down a cascade of police fire, he encourages himself to think of being executed in the same way as getting high; anything that gets you as close to death as possible will elicit the same response, even if you go right over the edge.
During this debaucherous night, Eric admits to Zed that he has AIDS which he contracted through intravenous drug use. This goes a long way to explaining his behaviour. In his mind, he is already dead. What is the worst that can happen? Just death from a different angle. He doesn’t care about inflicting this same death sentence on his friends either. During a scene in a nightclub, Zed is vomiting in the bathroom and Eric can be seen in the background having sex with someone from behind. While it’s hard to make out, that person is, in fact, Francois (Tai Thai). Avary has stated that this was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the French occupation of Vietnam.
Somehow, despite the massive, massive quantities of drugs and alcohol the team of would-be bank robbers took the night before, they still manage to get up to carry out the job the next morning. They all don carnival masks to hide their faces before bursting into the bank and quickly kill those who do not cooperate. They escort Zed (who has not witnessed the killings) to the safe so he can get to work. Their plans soon start to disintegrate as the police show up and they’re faced with the possibility of going to jail for life or having to shoot their way out. Eric throws an explosive into a vault and enters it, finding an abundant supply of gold bars—but the thieves can’t leave the bank alive with their fortune. Tensions become even higher when Zed recognizes Zoe (who coincidentally works at the bank) and attempts to protect her, to the fury of Eric, who viciously slashes Zed’s cheek with a knife.
Jean-Hughes Anglade is particularly brilliant in his role. He slowly reveals his sadistic side, sliding from merely obnoxious, into sinister cynicism, and finally landing on obstinate psychopath. His actions and intonations begin with cheerful banter hiding malevolence; by the finale his script has been flipped. His deteriorating relationship with Zed well represents this descent into violence. In the beginning, there is a profound joy in Eric when he and Zed reunite, even saying how he would only wish to do this (the heist) with his long-lost friend. As we reach the bloody finale and Eric has a knife to Zed’s face, however, Eric sarcastically laments, “So I guess this is the end of our friendship?” Zed, in his most lucid and coherent state at this point in the film, coldly replies, “Friendship? I haven’t seen you in 11 years; you don’t even know me”.
Although the film was set in Paris, it was entirely shot in L.A. The crew just shot the road sequences that bookend the film in the French capital. Jean-Hughes Anglade was the driver for the two shots actually done in Paris. This was after production, and he wasn’t under contract. He just happened to be in Paris at the time and offered to help any way he could.
A vicious gunfight between the police, Eric, and the rest of the gang ensues—with Zed caught ‘innocently’ in the middle. The cops kill Eric’s men as they rush the bank, and Zed and Eric fight each other. The police shoot Eric to death. He falls on Zed, splattering enormous amounts of blood on him in the process. Injured, Zed is led away quickly by Zoe, who covers for him, stating he is a bank customer. They drive away in her car, hoping for a happy ending.
“I’m going to show you the real Paris” — Zoe to Zed
Killing Zoe has quite an identity crisis in that it moves from a Parisian love affair in the first act, to an indie tale of self-harm in the middle, and onto a big, bold American-style action thriller in the final act. Each act is colour coded in different hues (the red, white, and blue of the French and American flags) which further accentuates this. White from the start to Eric’s arrival, blue until Zed passes out after partying, and red from when they prepare to enter the bank until the end. This is pulled off through many subtle touches. For example, Zed wears a blue plaid shirt during his night out, which switches to red plaid during the robbery as it gets soaked in blood. The tonal shifts could be a bit jarring but are effective at accentuating the growing sense of unease and lack of control for Zed. As more and more characters are added into each act, Zed becomes less and less in control of his surroundings and his agency. By the third act, he is largely passive, leaving the narrative momentum to Zoe and Eric.
Twenty-five years since its release, I still can’t really compare Killing Zoe to anything I’ve seen before or since, even with its many influences. It has its own style and mood; it feels sickeningly realistic, gritty and violent at times. I was a teen during the ’90s; we were a generation of young people that were very angry at the world: our music, TV, and films were not uplifting. Grunge spawned from pent up anger. Likewise, the characters in Killing Zoe have that anarchic “fuck everything” mentality to them; these are men who don’t give a crap what happens to them or anyone else. Life is just one big fat stupid joke not meant to be taken seriously.
HIV and AIDS were starting to become something everyone was scared of in the mid ’90s—society learned this was not a disease reserved solely for people in the gay community, but it still wasn’t as well understood as it is today. An HIV diagnosis then felt like a death sentence and its portrayal in Killing Zoe very much played on those fears. Even its vaguely happy ending, in that Zed and Zoe survive and escape to see her version of the ‘real’ Paris (the City of Love), has bleak connotations. Has Zed been exposed to Eric’s HIV-infected blood? Is he, in turn, going to infect Zoe? It is an assumption that we are left with at the end of the film and one that may explain the film’s title, though Avary has stated that in Greek Zoe means ‘life’, so in essence, the film is called ‘Killing Life’.
On that happy note, I shall bid you adieu. Killing Zoe may not be on the same par as Reservoir Dogs, but it still has quite the bite and is well worth watching today. Roger Avary wrote a sequel that has yet to be produced. Reportedly, it would involve Zed and Zoe on the run from the French authorities and hiding out in a Moroccan casino. They later find out the casino is run by Eric’s twin brother, who is “a very different kind of monster than Eric.” Hmm. I think the rest of this story should remain in our imaginations.