“Sometimes the absence of pain is more dangerous than the pain itself,” says a doctor during the final sequence in the futuristic conspiracy thriller Zenith, a loony cinematic experience that envisions a world where complex language is extinct and self-inflicted hurt remains a pastime of choice. This particular future houses a civilization grown collectively mute by biological warfare and genetic purification, with those who remember the meaning of words wielding great power. As a result, writer-director Vladan Nokolic’s low-budget mind game uses specific prose to incite conflict and deception, following ex-doctor turned drug dealer Jack (Peter Scanavino) as he investigates his missing father’s quest to unearth a secret society and its controlling doctrine called “Zenith.” Structured by a fluctuating, rambling voiceover narration that calls attention to the aesthetics of screenwriting while reinforcing a disjointed sense of place, Zenith often feels most dynamic when language fails to contain the increasingly ambitious narrative concerns.
As a hero, Jack is a typical lone wolf searching for an ideological place to call home, cynical because of life’s unfair twists yet honorable enough to see the potential hope glimmering on the droll horizon. His loyal sidekick, Nimble (Al Nazemian), like most of the citizenry populating the film, is too devolved to utter a word, making Jack’s life incredibly isolated and quiet. In between selling drugs to an underground populace yearning for pain, Jack makes one-man videotapes where he defines vast amounts of vocabulary so he won’t forget their meanings. When Jack rediscovers an outlandish series of tapes his father made decades previous about a global conspiracy to control the world through passivity, Zenith jettisons its hero into a fractured noirish underbelly of seedy strip clubs, posh mansions, and rain-drenched alleys. Nokilic juxtaposes Jack’s present quest with the footage of Ed’s exploits, each growing more layered as information unfolds.
Despite its rough production edges, including some terrible handheld cinematography and shoddy performances, Zenith captures the dying pulse of a uniquely confined nationalized state silenced by growing corruption and decadence. Rotting walls, blown-out windows, and boarded-up doors make up the film’s crumbling infrastructure, and Nokilic manages to infer a burgeoning sense of panic, at least in those still able to understand the implications of their actions. When Jack meets a Spanish stripper named Lisa (Ana Asensio), the film delves headfirst into erotic tangents infused with long sessions of sex and camaraderie that distract the characters from their overarching concerns. Contrast Jack’s gullibility with Ed’s growing paranoia and you’ve got a strange template for generational traumas permeating a special brand of menace. But flashbacks, voiceover, and slow motion represent an authoritarian distrust, aesthetics meant to manipulate Jack’s grip on reality. This constant battle between form and function makes Zenith a foggy window into a haunting potential future bursting with uncertainty.
Jake’s hallucinatory self-realization process becomes more important than the film’s attempt at twisty ambiguity, making Zenith rife with trap doors and reversals, hidden corridors and dark corners holding potentially devastating information. Jack comes to understand how an idea spreads from one personality to the next, not in the same vein as Inception, but through a viral approach to human interaction. During the strange third act, derangement seems to spread from one character to the next like a plague, infecting not only the players but also the film itself. Images grow shakier, while the audio often overlaps classical music, pop songs, and ambient noise as if to fill any potential voids in Jack’s point of view. The film’s messy pacing ultimately undermines the frequently enthralling themes at play, and the indescribably odd ending only sends the viewer off more confused.
Still, Zenith shoots for the moon and accomplishes a lot of complexity with very little money or professionalism. “The most dangerous people are idealists,” Lisa says after another roll in the hay with Jack. Our hero smiles to himself, unaware that her words will have ramifications far beyond their surface romance. The clues to Jack and Ed’s complimentary mania are hidden in the details, and even though Zenith fails to make these clear to even the audience at some points, there’s plenty of worthwhile paradoxes making this grim psychology session worth watching.