There’s a certain degree of ambition to Adam Levins and Julian T. Pinder’s faux-documentary thriller Population Zero that can’t be denied, but ambition doesn’t always make for the most thought out or well reasoned films. Initially outlining itself in a style similar to an episode of investigative, sensationalized news shows like Dateline or 48 Hours, Population Zero quickly turns itself into a polished, fake doco where the filmmakers insert themselves into a dangerous situation that might find them in over their heads. It’s a good idea, but unconvincingly executed every step of the way.
Pinder, a Canadian documentarian and filmmaker in reality, stars as himself, investigating a made-up, but plausible sounding murder case based around a bizarrely real loophole in the United States Constitution. Almost a decade ago, a trio of young hikers making their way through Yellowstone National Park were brutally murdered by Dwayne Nelson (Duane Murray), a seemingly normal man who outright confessed to the crime and blamed it on an inexcusable drunken lapse in judgment. Nelson is never convicted of the murders, or even brought to trial thanks to a exploitable caveat in federal law. A felony trial has to be held in the state the crime was committed in, and the jury has to be comprised of peers from within the community where the act took place. Yellowstone, which falls within three U.S. States, contains a roughly fifty mile patch along the Wyoming/Idaho border where – if the accused refuses a relocation of their trial, as is their right – no one can be convicted of anything. Nelson gets away and quietly slinks away to Canada, and local authorities do their damndest to cover up that this whole embarrassment to the legal system ever happened. Pinder becomes consumed by a quest to make the murderer accountable by proving that the killings were premeditated and motivated, the one thing that could reopen the case if proven. Everyone, including the families of the victims, wants Pinder to leave the case alone, but rightly or wrongly, the filmmaker carries with him a documentarian’s desire to persist against injustice no matter where it leads.
Population Zero plays fast and loose with what the much talked about statutes and loopholes actually mean and do, but as a premise it’s solid. It just doesn’t fit the style of the kind of polished, rigidly constructed mockumentary that screenwriter Jeff Staranchuk has come up with. I don’t call Population Zero a mockumentary in the sense that it’s funny, but because it’s a mock-up of talking head driven documentary conventions. In a funny, but fake documentary, viewers can buy into any number of things that aren’t real because they know what they’re watching is silly and playful. A film like Population Zero, which isn’t even aspiring to something as basically terrifying as a stripped down found footage flick, has to be exceptionally good at feeling realistic to succeed.
Nothing in Population Zero ever once gives off any veneer of realism outside of the hook that the plot revolves around. Pinder isn’t a well gifted actor, and watching an actual filmmaker play a director this awkwardly (including some overwritten narration) means the film isn’t anchored in anything convincing. As filmmakers, Pinder (Trouble in the Peace, Jesus Town, USA) and Levins (Estranged) are detail oriented enough to understand documentary convention, and it’s edited together like one would put together such a reality based story for television. The talking head interviews are staged like one would see in a documentary, but the actors vary so wildly in quality that suspension of disbelief is impossible to sustain. Pinder and Levins could most likely make a decent, actual documentary together, but neither of them can shake how fake all of this feels.
Around the halfway point, the interviews with faux subjects stop, and the film centres around Pinder’s quest for justice, and things get dodgier. There are sequences and insert shots that make no sense in the context of something that’s supposed to be a documentary, and the film largely rests on the acting ability of Pinder to portray a filmmaker who has been pushed to his moral limits by what he’s been documenting. Population Zero starts to morph into a more conventional thriller complete with the heroes conveniently happening upon a confrontational hick gutting a pig and mysterious packages arriving in the mail, both moments that reek of either lazy writing or a misguided producer saying that something had to be done to goose the audience out of a potential coma.
From here, Population Zero builds to something that could have been novel, but instead ends up rather infuriating and annoying. A narrative decision is made to tie this murder case to a documentary that already exists in our reality. That’s a cool idea, but the plot revelations surrounding it lead to the core mystery making even less sense than it originally made, and the whole thing comes across as a weird sort of commercial for a better, admittedly important and emotionally affecting film that already exists. It’s hard to describe without spoiling, but it’s an off-putting bit of self-promotion that’s as uneasy as it is patently ludicrous.
There isn’t a single moment of Population Zero that wouldn’t have been better with the fake documentary style excised. With a more confident script, this would play as a cracking thriller. Population Zero’s aesthetic choice shoots the whole movie in the foot from the start. A great documentary makes people think and ask questions about what they’re seeing and what it all means in a larger context. Population Zero only works if you don’t ask any questions at all, and given its own set of logistical and narrative loopholes, refraining from asking anything of the filmmakers is impossible.