Day Zero

Whenever you stroll over to the mailbox, you’re likely to find the same annoying junk: another pre-approval notice for a credit card, a value pack of coupons, an offer for a nearly extinct magazine about auto parts. What you don’t expect to find is a draft notice demanding you to report for military duty in 30 days. But what if all that changed?

Day Zero is set in modern times in New York. It opens with a text scroll about how the draft was instituted between World War I and Vietnam, and how it’s since been suspended. Until now. Three young men, who have been friends since childhood, have just been served: Feller (Elijah Wood), an eccentric novelist with a newly debilitating case of writer’s block; Rifkin (Chris Klein), a married lawyer in slick suits who has just made partner; and Dixon (Jon Bernthal), a charming but reclusive cabbie with a loose-cannon temper.

Since the three of them are nothing alike, it’s only fitting that their responses to storm the battlefield would differ. Feller and Rifkin both have an allergic reaction to the news, but Feller addresses it by making a list of 10 things to do before he serves (including shaving his head and frequenting a peep show), and Rifkin does everything in his power to dodge the proverbial bullet (including trying to pull political strings and nearly hacking off an appendage). Dixon, on the flip side, is honored to serve his country--and that doesn’t change when he meets the girl of his dreams right before his call to arms, which is something a weaker, more manipulative movie would have done.

There is a lot of edge and balls to Day Zero, a film that I was lucky enough to catch at Tribeca film festival and that does not yet have a distributor (although that is likely to change with its impending buzz). This is not a watered-down, pandering take on what would happen if the young men we know were drafted--it aims right for the jugular. And hits it, hard.

The disturbing film, written by Rob Malkani and directed by Bryan Gunnar Cole, unfolds like a play and stays away from any fancy, flashy camerawork. There’s just no need for it. The confusion and anguish emitted from the actors is effective enough, even as their character arcs sometimes drift into shocking directions.

Klein, an affable talent with a tendency to take bland, unchallenging roles, really busts out of his safety zone here and proves that he has been underselling himself. Wood, never one to shy away from a gamble, takes a big one by playing a man being lured into insanity’s web. Let’s just say you’ve never seen Frodo go quite so loco. And lastly, Bernthal, in the least outlandish role of the bunch, relies mostly on body language, brooding and the occasional fit of rage, and impressively pulls it off.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of war, it’s hard to imagine the men we know, the ones who may hesitate before killing a spider or trip on a crack in the sidewalk, being uprooted and forced to be soldiers. But this was the case for many years, and is still the case in many countries. Could the draft come back to the U.S.? It’s anybody’s guess, but Day Zero gives a scary glimpse into what it could be like. And why we should prepare ourselves.