Reservoir Dogs (1992)and Pulp Fiction (1994)cast a long shadow over 1990s cinema, so much so that within that timeframe every independent filmmaker and their drunken uncle set out to make their box office bones with a crime story. They had varying degrees of success, but one early ‘90s crime drama that seems to be consistently overlooked is Roger Avary’s 1993 arthouse/grindhouse fusion Killing Zoe.
Video Archives co-workers Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary aided each other with the films they were working on. Between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (which won Tarantino and Avary Oscars for Best Original Screenplay), Avary made this gritty and snarling, yet wildly gorgeous heist drama which disappeared into the shuffle of crime dramas of that time. It seems to be mentioned as a footnote if anything in critical pieces touching on ‘90s crime cinema. It most certainly deserves a second look, however.
From the opening credits sequence with its daytime travelogue of Paris by car, backed with the slap bass-driven, heavily percussive theme “Go!” by prolific but lesser-known composers and remixers known as Tomandandy (Tom Hadju and Andy Milburn), the stark red lettering of the credits themselves stands out against Tom Richmond’s cinematography shooting seemingly adjacent to Parisian landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Even Orly Airport, standing in for Charles De Gaulle Airport, appears in no-nonsense stark fashion, seen in a flash before Eric Stoltz’s safecracker Zed slings himself into a cab. The first few lines of the cab driver’s dialogue, in unsubtitled French, serve to keep non-French speakers as disoriented as protagonist Zed, who, upon realizing the cabbie is asking a question, explains: “I don’t speak French.” The dialogue from then on features English subtitles, since Zed’s confusion is established. The cabdriver inquires if Zed is married, then offers to set him up with a “wife” for the evening.” Let Moises set it up.”
After a slow fade to an interior of a hotel, the semi-English-speaking bellhop shows Zed his room, pointing to a large box sitting on the bed. “Your package came in the night last night, before the last night.” He helpfully offers before showing the rest of the claustrophobic room and helping himself to his own gratuity from Zed’s wallet. Jet-lagged Zed lies down next to his package, which a slow dissolve reveals to be a black plastic and metal case. A knock on the door interrupts Zed’s shower. He opens the door to reveal Zoe, a gum-popping, winsome, soft-spoken woman. In rapid-fire French, she begins to break down the rules before Zed interrupts. “You speak English?” Zoe retells him her rules, so he understands them, including his payment of 1000 francs ($200 American). Good-natured small talk precedes their sexual encounter, as F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu plays on the TV. Considering how sleazy the surroundings are, it’s surprising how tasteful the sex scene actually is, their coupling is shot in slow motion and montage-like, intercut with the footage from Nosferatu. Their pillow talk consists of conversations about what Zoe does when not doing sex work. An art student, Zoe also has a day job to support herself. “Three days a week, very boring.” After they declare their like for each other, they drift off to sleep. After a smash cut to them asleep in bed they’re awakened by knocking on the door. The two drag themselves out of bed. Zoe heads to the bathroom to take a shower, while Zed answers the door. Larger than life Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) barrels in. After a brief greeting, Eric begins to bring Zed to meet the rest of the crew. Zed tells Eric that Zoe is still in the room, and he’ll let her stay the night. Eric tells him how dangerous it is before going into the bathroom to roust Zoe from her shower. They scuffle, while Zed, too jetlagged and shocked to react, looks on. Eric pushes her out the door, tossing her clothes out as an afterthought before trying to resume small talk with Zed. “I liked that girl!” Zed protests and they argue over Zoe and sex workers in general. Eric finally starts to leave. Zed makes for the shower, but Eric stops him, urging him to just put on a shirt and sport coat. “In Paris, it’s good to smell like you’ve been fucking. It will make them respect you.”
In Eric’s car, they discuss what they’d been doing since they last saw each other 11 years prior. Zed has had nothing doing for him in the US, while Eric and his crew work at newspaper Le Figaro and bomb fascists for fun.
Eric brings Zed to a grimy apartment, where he introduces Oliver (Gary Kemp), Claude (Salvator Xuereb), Jean (Kario Salem), Ricardo (Bruce Ramsay), and Francois (Tai Thai). “They already know who you are,” Zed informs Eric before dragging him to another room to go over the plan for the heist of Banque Internationale de Paris, the only bank open on Bastille Day. Eric reveals that their goal is a platen of gold. After scrutinizing the blueprints, Zed informs Eric it’ll take two hours to open the vault. Eric complains loudly that that will take too long, and the police will interrupt. Zed notices a connecting room between two vaults and says he can open the vault that connects to the target vault in one-half hour. Eric and Zed are pleased at the answer, but Eric’s admission that Bastille Day is the following day shocks Zed. When Zed angrily says he hasn’t even seen the bank, Eric tells him “Before we do a job, we live life. It’s better that way. OK?” Zed, not convinced, agrees anyway. Eric says “Now, we do heroin.”
A protracted bacchanalia of drug use, car rides, and subterranean jazz club visits ensue, an even more jet-lagged and bone-weary Zed being dragged along with the crew on an alcohol and illicit drug use bender, We’re informed along with Zed during the night’s misadventure that Eric has AIDS from a needle, that crew member Oliver has an affinity for Star Trek, The Prisoner, and Viking films, and the subtextual possibility that Eric’s affection and respect for Zed might be more than friendship. Zed blacks out after vomiting in a grimy public restroom, the sounds of Eric and Francois having a rough trade interlude audible as the purposely out-of-focus camera fades out.
Zed awakens on the sofa in the apartment we saw earlier, not even remembering that they stopped at the hotel for his gear. “Get up and take a shit so we can go.” Eric urges him.
The crew pulls up in front of Banque Internationale de Paris in a panel truck. They put on gaudy animal masks to conceal their identities and make sure to cock and load their weapons. To a club banger of an instrumental piece, the crew enters the bank, guns at ready. Ricardo shoots the concierge (Adult film star Ron Jeremy, billed as Ron Jeremy Hyatt, in a five-second long, non-speaking role) before he can press the alarm button. Claude rushes the office, tearing at the phone lines while having the workers raise their hands. One of the workers is Zoe, who raises her hands along with the other hostages. Amid the chaotic taking of the bank, Zed goes down to the basement along with Eric, Oliver, and the bank’s manager (Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi), taking bank staff and a stodgy customer as hostages along the way. All braggadocio and swagger, the crew self-congratulates on how easily they took the bank. Eric, flanked by Zed and Oliver, heads toward the vault, the red paint scheme of the basement walls generating a hellish ambiance. Once they reach the vault, Eric threatens to kill his hostages if the manager doesn’t open the vault for them. The manager tearfully refuses. Eric shoots the bank teller hostage, then threatens the stodgy customer. Zed offers to open the vault, but Eric cuts him off before shooting the bank’s manager. Zed and Eric argue about Eric’s killing the workers. Eric dismisses Zed to open the fault, then ducks into a men’s room to shoot up heroin.
Intercutting between the hostage situation upstairs and Zed’s opening of the vault in the basement furthers the uneven tone established so far, emphasizing the dichotomy between arthouse and grindhouse even further. Ricardo, telling an off-color joke, reaches the punch line before one of the bank security guards, who had a hidden gun, shoots him. Eric comes back upstairs to find out what happened. He’s interrupted by a loud-mouthed American tourist. Eric, already in an anxious state, shoots the “Ugly American.” It’s here that we first notice an intriguing stylistic choice. Action movies typically cut from the shooter to the shot person. The people shot in Killing Zoe are shot offscreen unless they’re organically in the shot to begin with. The aftereffects of gun violence are visible matter-of-factly, a blink and you’ll miss it a phenomenon.
Eric returns to the basement, not before noting that Zoe is in the bank. Zed opens the vault. Headed toward the door between the vaults, Zed and Eric advance toward it, but an unseen armed guard in their target vault fires at them. Eric tries to talk the guard out of doing his job, but he refuses. Eric grabs a sizeable chunk of explosives from Zed’s case. Over Zed’s protests, he lights the fuse and tosses the ersatz bomb through the window to the other vault. The window blows open and the unseen guard screams. Zed and Eric make their way into the vault where the platen of gold waits for them. Eric, overcome by joy, weeps. “We are rich men.” He sobs. “We’re not out of here yet.” Zed cautions. “Yes, but we are rich.” Eric picks up a gold bar. He brings the bar up to the lobby to show the crew, shooting a bank clerk who calls him a monster and says they’ll never get away with it. Heading back down to the basement, Eric has a psychotic break (well, more of a psychotic break than what’s been on display so far) and heads back up to dispatch another hostage. He grabs Zoe to execute her, but a security guard begs for mercy on her behalf. Eric grants Zoe clemency but drags the guard who spoke up for her to the bank entrance and shoots him.
Zed, about to open the vault from the inside, hears pained groans from the still alive security guard. Horrifically burned, thanks to Tom Savini’s excellent special effects makeup, the guard begs Zed to hold his hand. Repulsed and sickened, Eric picks up the guard’s gun and puts him out of his misery.
Once Zed opens the vault from inside, he has Oliver pull the door open from outside. They bring the gold to an elevator to bring it to the truck. Zed asks if there’s something to cover the platen with and Oliver informs him that the police are outside the bank in a standoff situation.
Eric grabs Zoe with the intent to kill her. They grapple for the gun. It goes off and shoots Eric’s foot. Zoe grabs the gun and shoots wildly heading toward the basement, coming face to face with Zed and Oliver. When Oliver aims his gun at Zoe, Zed intervenes. They grapple for the gun, and Oliver subdues Zed, bringing him to Eric, who cuts Zed’s face and pushes him down a flight of stairs.
Tear gas canisters burst through the bank’s ceiling, and the crew falls to police gunfire one by one.
Zoe finds Zed in the basement, planning to lock them both into a vault. Eric interrupts that plan, leading to a viciously brutal two against one fight. The grappling, antithetical to the typical Hollywood fistfight, unreels with a homoerotic bent where Zed and Eric are concerned. Backs slam against those red walls. Eric grabs Zed’s crotch. Slow-motion, which can be a cinematic sex scene trope, here contrasts its usual purpose. Eric wins the fight against the two, grabbing a gun from the fallen Oliver. He cocks the gun, preparing to kill them both, but police intervene and shoot him, his body standing as round after round flies into him, covering Zed and Zoe with his blood. He falls atop Zed, who pushes him away. Zoe tells the police that Zed was a customer caught in the heist, instead of giving him up to les flics.
They trudge through the bank lobby. Zoe tells Zed she has a car. Once they’re in Zoe’s car, Zoe asks if Zed is hurt. He says, “It’s mostly his blood.” Since it’s established that Eric has AIDS, that throws a pall of uncertainly over their future. Zed thanks her. “You’ll get well,” Zoe says, “and then I’ll show you the real Paris.”
Even though the ending seems sweet at first viewing, it’s more nihilistic than it might seem. Even though Zed managed not to be arrested or killed, their potential future has an undercurrent of risk and uncertainty, as if he was lifted from Hell into Purgatory. The final scene before the end credits gives us our first look at a Parisian landmark when Zoe’s car enters the traffic pattern around the fully visible Arc de Triomphe.