Zoo-Head (2019)

In Zoo-Head, the latest feature from writer/director Navin Dev (Red Kingdom Rising, 2014), Charlie (Daniel Ahmadi) is stuck in a loop. It is not just that he has destroyed his memory and made one day blur into another with the illicit pharmaceuticals (known as ‘zootropics’) that he regularly consumes to escape the pain of his past, but also that the experimental Infinity rehabilitation programme run by Dr Pierce (Ross Mullan) has sent Charlie on a ‘memory loop’ in an attempt to restore his drug-damaged neurons and synapses. Now reliving the same infernal Groundhog Day, and unsure whether he is a body strung out on a pharmacological bender, a brain strapped to a machine, or even a mere construct of someone else’s looping memory, Charlie turns to his girlfriend Megan (Hussina Raja) and his flatmate Barton (Brian Potter Jr.) – themselves also users – to help him break free of his rut. Along the way, fundamental philosophical questions will be raised about personal identity, other minds, parallel worlds, the nature of reality and the place of suffering in the universe.

Like the dilapidated squat in which he lives, Charlie is a wreck in need of repair, and the reconstruction of his memory and integrity also involves a confrontation with a past that he has willingly left half-forgotten, half-buried. As in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (2013), Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect (2018) and Héctor Valdez’s similarly looping Peaches (Melecotones, 2017), both the primal scene and destination point in Zoo-Head is a beach – that liminal space of transformation where land is endlessly being reshaped by the ripples and waves of an infinite sea. This shifting ground stages Charlie’s only remaining childhood memory, as the place where all his present problems were first founded, like a castle in the sand. 

Accordingly, although the film’s circular structure rests in a sci-fi premise – a neurological method for supplementing cognitive dysfunction with dream fragments – Zoo-Head also, much like Madellaine Paxson’s Blood Punch (2015), uses its looping narrative to evoke different, more psychological brands of circularity, namely the cycles of addiction and abuse. As Charlie struggles to find his footing and rebuild his life from its ruins, Dev envisages this lost soul’s internal conflicts as a low-budget, lo-fi paranoid trip into disorienting trauma – think Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006) without the rotoscoping. It’s as ugly as Charlie’s accommodation and habits, but full of insights about our human condition, stranded between the scars of the past and the open horizon of the future.

© Anton Bitel