Killing Zoe: Rober Avary’s Tarantino-like Crime Caper, Starring Eric Stoltz

Killing Zoe, written and directed by Roger Avary, is a Tarantino-like picture. Tarantino served as executive producer and Avary, Tarantino’s mate at the Manhattan Beach’s Video Archives, collaborated on the scripts of True Romance (a shared daydream of two video-store clerks) and Pulp Fiction.

Much less subtle and talented than Tarantino, Avary relies on aggressive, in-your-face style.

The script for Killing Zoe was done quickly so as to use a bank location in downtown L.A., standing in for Paris, where the movie is set.

A relentlessly over-the-top, ultra-bloody crime caper, it owes its existence to French noir. As the critic Jim Hoberman observed, “like Reservoir Dogs and other male adolescent fantasies, Killing Zoe is a feast of high-octane gibberish and badass attitude, rampant female masochism and routine misogyny.” Avary replaces Gomez’s terrifying nihilism with comic nihilism in a bank heist yarn gone disastrously awry.

American safecracker Zed (Eric Stoltz) arrives in Paris to hook up with Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade), his buddy who’s planning a bank robbery on the Bastille Day with his heroin-addicted gang.

Upon arrival, a cabdriver fixes him up with Zoe (Julie Delpy), a hooker, or as the cabbie says, “a wife for a night.” For all his tough-guy facade, Zed is an innocent abroad, and much of the humor is directed at his passivity: Zed can’t even prevent the naked Zoe from being thrown out of his room, when Eric shows up.

A would-be criminal mastermind, Eric is a crazed philosopher with a theoretical axiom for every occasion. Dissuading Zed from taking a shower, Eric says, “in Paris, it’s good to smell like you’ve been fucking–it will make them respect you.” Zed is welcomed by the rest of the gang with a dead cat, dirty dishes, marijuana, and endless squabbles. The gang spends a long evening driving around Paris in a slow-motion, under the influence of drugs. With visual flair, Avary and cinematographer Tom Richmond use a mobile camera to present Zed’s journey through the night. The dissolute team shoots up and pops pills in a ritualistic male bonding in an all-night Dixieland cavern.

Though Avary, Stoltz and other actors are American, and an L.A. bank doubled for the interiors, the film has the lurid tone of a French neo-noir, like Luc Besson’s Subway, with all the existential pretentiousness. According to Avary, Killing Zoe was meant to be an allegory: “Eric can be likened to the Reagan-Bush years, when they kept everyone happy through hysteria. Just saying that things are good doesn’t necessarily make everything good, but it fools a lot of people into following you.”

Avary keeps things loose and visually exciting: Zed’s robbery joy ride turns into a delirium. But it’s a letdown when the bank heist takes centerstage. As robbers, they are such out-of-control incompetents, there’s no doubt the heist will go awry, the only question is how messy the bloodbath will be. Zed’s realization that Eric is a psychopath comes too late. As Peter Rainer pointed out, Avary juices the screen with ultra-violence, because he can’t figure out a clever way to get his guys out of there.

An arty neo-noir in color, Killing Zoe promises to take off in unexpected directions, but its major distinction is Avary’s gift for hysteria and pompous existentialism.  Indeed, most critics acknowledged the director’s blatantly flashy style but dismissed the film as a minor narrative, almost lifted from the Tarantino school.

Released by October Films, while Pulp Fiction was still in vogue, Killing Zoe earned disappointing grosses ($400,000), which couldn’t even recoup its $1.6 million budget.