Mile Zero indicates how far crap will fly when Judge Diane Wild presides.
The most dangerous place is the human heart.
Mile Zero was shown in various film festivals after its release in 2001, but found no theatrical distribution. It's the well-crafted, well-acted feature debut of director Andrew Currie, who wisely stripped it down to bare essentials and created a taut, three-character psychological drama. What might have scared distributors away, and what prevents me from unreservedly recommending this film, is the loaded subject matter.
Facts of the Case
Derek Ridley (Michael Riley, Cube Zero) is distraught over the breakup of his marriage and the daily separation from his beloved eight-year-old son Will (Connor Widdows, Agent Cody Banks), so he abducts him and drives to the mountains in search of a Utopian retreat. Told in non-linear narrative, we learn that Derek's estranged wife Allison (Sabrina Grdevich) is seeing someone else, which triggers Derek to go through her garbage and put a hidden camera in Will's bedroom, among other acts of obsession. Father and son obviously love each other, and though Will initially trusts that the road trip is sanctioned by his mother, that trust wanes as Derek becomes more and more unhinged.
It's always risky to center a movie around an unsympathetic character, perhaps riskier still to start him off sympathetic and reveal slowly to the audience and the characters surrounding him just how disturbed he is, since there's the risk of us feeling duped into caring about him.
Mile Zero opens with home movie footage that's interspersed throughout the film, showing the family of three in happier times. Even then, there are hints of Derek's darkness that are only obvious in retrospect. In one tape, Allison awakes to find him filming baby Will playing with blocks when both should still be in bed, and in another, he is directing her to tell him how much she loves him. The fact that Derek has brought a collection of these films with him on the abduction, plus tapes of Will sleeping from that hidden camera, brings his voyeurism out in the open, and is one of the first solid clues Will has for thinking maybe his dad has some issues, and maybe his mom doesn't really know where he is.
It breaks Derek's heart that he can't be around to tuck Will in to bed at night, and that heartbreak leads him to begin the surveillance. But there's a fairly wide line between sweet and creepy, and it's a line that stalkers can't see. "I love you so much," Derek tells Will at one point. "I would never hurt you." But since many violent crimes are committed by people against their supposed loved ones, it's a hollow comfort.
"There was something beautiful about you, how deeply you loved," explains Allison when trying to convince him the separation is not temporary. "But you always took it too far." And that is the essential truth behind Derek's character. He obviously loves his child, but it is not a redeeming quality because it's not accompanied by a desire to do the best for Will. In the present timeline, Derek not only lies to Will and abducts him, he leaves the frightened child alone in the hotel room for hours while he gets drunk in the bar across the street—after telling Will he was going to the store and would be right back. In flashbacks, we see that Allison wants him to have overnight visitation with Will, but Derek refuses to make room for him in his new apartment.
Some almost-effective, but slightly overstated, color theory conveys the divide between Derek's new life and old. His apartment (which is located in the city of North Vancouver, so Derek can be seen mournfully looking across the water to the Vancouver cityscape, where his family lives) is presented in a cold blue color balance, while the family home scenes have a warm, orange glow. In the commentary, Currie mentions that the colors were pushed even more in the DVD transfer than the original film presentation, but while I understood that the tone was intentional, the intense color difference was distracting and felt like a problem with the source material.
Michael Riley plays Derek to eerie perfection, acting overly cheerful with his son as he explains the plan to go on a camping trip, and trying too hard to be a pal, before descending into more blatantly manipulative and controlling territory. The disintegration of his personality is frightening and convincing, and even with the back-and-forth jumps in time, Currie sets a pace that slowly reveals Derek's meltdown with details that have been foreshadowed but not overplayed earlier. We learn, for example, that Derek's justification for abducting Will is his belief that Allison's boyfriend is sexually abusing him, which allows for some sympathy for his actions…until we learn later that he already knew his fears were unfounded before going ahead with the abduction.
Currie uses frequent shots of distorted images through dirty windshields, foggy mirrors, or the webcam, and the fragmented storyline and use of hand-held cameras contribute to reflect the shaky mental state of the main character. His direction is faultless for its ability to coax great performances out of his small cast, but his sense of the symbolic does not jive with my own. In the commentary with associate producer Kevin Eastman, Currie talks about his initial shot of a bee crawling inside the car windshield as a symbol of Derek's feelings of entrapment, but to me, one insect shot does not make a symbol, and trapped is not the overriding emotion I get from Derek.
Currie also mentions in the commentary that the title of the film comes from the beginning point of the Trans Canada Highway in Victoria (even in metric Canada, Mile 0 apparently sounds better than Kilometer Zero). Call me too literal, but the movie isn't set in Victoria, plus the implication of fresh beginnings is too optimistic to work here.
Intentional color issues aside, this is a great transfer of a low-budget movie, with apparently faithful color reproduction and no grain or edge enhancement to detract from the picture. The gorgeous cinematography is shown off to great effect. Unlike many movies with mountain settings, Currie doesn't rely on the backdrop to create a beauty that would clash with the themes of the film. The road trip scenes were shot in British Columbia's Coastal Mountains between seasons, when the trees were bare, and the action ends up in a spot where fires had ravaged the giant trees and new plantings were encased in tombstone-looking protective coverings. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is almost overkill for the dialogue-oriented movie, but effectively captures the haunting score by Don MacDonald (Kissed).
Besides the engaging commentary, which fills the space well with casting, production, and direction tidbits, and has an easy tone between Currie and Eastwood, there are a slew of other extras. The deleted scenes would have dragged the film to a snail's pace if they were left in, but they do give some more dimension to the characters and even some extra information that adds to the story. About three minutes of B-roll footage shows the filming process itself, while the interviews have the actors and director talking about the characters and story. Other extras include trailers, a photo gallery, and extensive biographies for the three actors and the director.
Wellspring Media has impressed me before, and it's gratifying to see a small, independent movie treated with such respect, as demonstrated through the copious extras and a solid DVD presentation. Mile Zero is a gripping drama whose disturbing subject matter interfered with me actually enjoying it. It's a film that deserves an audience—but one that can appreciate the story more than I can.
Derek: guilty. DVD: not.
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Studio: Wellspring Media
• Director's commentary
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