The Reconstruction of William Zero Dir. Dan Bush

[FilmBuff; 2015]

Styles: speculative fiction, thriller, romance
Others: Primer, Upstream Color

Conal Byrne’s measured performance and carefully composed, pained facial expressions constitute the bulk of what’s interesting in The Reconstruction of William Zero, a film which stretches itself very thin while attempting to tackle big ideas surrounding cloning, identity, loss, and redemption. Playing a recent car crash victim with amnesia and the twin brother who rehabilitates him in a nice house in some nondescript semi-rural suburb, Byrne attempts to piece together his identity, discovering along the way that his brother isn’t being altogether honest about his memory loss and where he’s actually come from. The film hinges on a couple of big reveals, which are fairly easy to see coming, but it’s really the interplay between the different characters Byrne portrays that gives the film its heft.

Currently serving as vice president for digital media at the Discovery network, Mr. Byrne has been making relatively small films here and there for nearly a decade, often with the help of longtime collaborator and director of this most recent project, Dan Bush. The history the creative duo share is obvious in the film, which benefits greatly from an assured visual and thematic aesthetic that drives the sometimes confusing and sometimes predictable narrative. In fact, it’s the craft of William Zero that elevates it above a mere intriguing speculative fiction romp. Those big revealing moments and plot twists that plant the movie squarely within the speculative fiction genre are almost necessarily gimmicky, but the Bush/Byrne team pulls them off with a fair amount of originality.

Calling to mind Jeremy Irons’ brilliant work in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, it’s Byrne’s ability to delineate between almost identical characters that struck me as the most impressive element of a movie which was generally unremarkable otherwise. The actor imbues each iteration of himself with slight but very important character differences, without resorting to anything as cheap as accents, physical ticks, or the like. It’s an exceedingly difficult thing to effectively capture such similar but importantly different people for a film, and Byrne deserves all the praise he can get for doing it so well.

We come to find out that Byrne’s character is wracked with guilt over the accidental death of his kindergarten-aged daughter, a death he caused mainly due to an inability to focus on his family while in the middle of grappling with a huge scientific discovery. Amy Seimetz does a remarkable job (doesn’t she always?) of playing Byrne’s wife, who, despite her best efforts, can’t keep their marriage together, apparent as it is that he’ll never be able to forgive himself for the accident. Whereas a lot of the emotional tension in the film stems from Byrne’s history with Seimetz, it’s an element of the story that seems unexplored — like we’ve just scratched the surface of something way more interesting than the scientific exposition surrounding cloning or whatever.

While there are some pretty excellent moments in The Reconstruction of William Zero, the film opts to tread a line between the personal relationship between Byrne and Seimetz, and the larger implications of cloning and human identity. In the process it fails to do anything great with either element, instead doing both reasonably well. An emotionally taught and brilliantly captured denouement notwithstanding, this film could have narrowed its focus and made a much bigger impact. It is, however, still an undeniably intriguing and entertaining entry into the kind of territory dominated by guys like Shane Carruth.

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