'Population Zero': Newport Beach Review

Courtesy of Face Films and Carousel Pictures
Uneven but creatively eerie.

A filmmaker investigates a crime in a mystery drama posing as nonfiction.

An ambitious next-generation spin on the found-footage genre, Population Zero starts out like an indie version of a true-crime TV news magazine and turns into a horror-tinged drama with a topical slant. The faux documentary, written by Jeff Staranchuk and directed by Julian T. Pinder and Adam Levins, takes a what-if scenario proposed by a legal scholar in a 2005 article — a warning about a constitutional loophole creating a potential “zone of death” in Yellowstone National Park — and melds it into the story of a mysterious triple homicide.

Premiering at the Newport Beach festival, the film can be overly self-conscious in its parsing of truth versus fiction. And as with many movies that use found footage, the conceit makes sense only up to a point. But at its core it plays intriguingly with storytelling cliches and the mythology of the American West.

The film begins with a warning about “graphic” and “distressing” content, the first example of which is a real photo of a bear chasing a grievously injured bison in Yellowstone. Whether or not this image is indeed the “metaphor” it’s presented as, Pinder discovers it online soon after the arrival in his in-box of information about the so-called Yellowstone Murders. That anonymous email sends him (and co-director Levins, portraying his cinematographer) on a road trip in search of a documentary.

At the heart of the story — at least until more is revealed — is the legal technicality that enabled a North Dakota man to go unsentenced after confessing to shooting three twentysomething campers. The killings happened in a narrow strip of Yellowstone that falls beyond the Wyoming border, in Idaho. Because it’s uninhabited land, offering no potential jurors, the killer can’t be tried according to the letter of the law as it’s laid out in the Sixth Amendment.

The story unfolds from the perspective of Pinder, who has directed a handful of documentaries and who appears as himself, or an increasingly reckless version of himself. Arriving on the scene as a metropolitan hipster affecting a modern Wild West look, complete with newly purchased hat, he receives ample screen time. Some of that makes sense given the film’s stated concerns with “the very nature of a documentary” and how far a filmmaker can insert himself into a story. Some of it simply feels like self-indulgence; whether that’s the intention isn’t entirely clear.

Sounding uncannily like Keanu Reeves, Pinder delivers voiceover narration that tends toward the grandiose or merely obvious (“The more research I did, the more questions were raised”). While his connecting of the investigative dots offers its surprises, it can also feel contrived. More convincing are the subtler pieces of subtext, like a strategically positioned American flag in a talking-head sequence that slyly hints at matters of class and corporate wealth that will figure in the case.

The directors and editor Roland Schlimme build a certain level of suspense and dread as Pinder, in his relentlessness, becomes a sort of self-appointed prosecutor, determined to explain a seemingly senseless act. As he crisscrosses the region, Population Zero gets an assortment of genre conventions just right.

Alan Poon’s camerawork has a sure feel for a wide range of idioms, beginning with grainy, high-angle interrogation-room footage and respectfully pushy, carefully lighted interviews with attorneys, cops and bereaved parents — the stock-in-trade of shows like Dateline NBC. The movie’s glimpses of no-budget filmmaking, from the rental car to the tacky interiors of roadside motels, have a lived-in truth, enhanced by the contributions of production designer Rachel McParland and Marissa Schwartz’s subtly character-defining costumes.

Notwithstanding the filmmakers’ preference for shots of roiling clouds way past their usefulness, the natural beauty of the West turns out to be a crucial element of the story, as does the often romanticized self-reliance of the region’s residents. The ways that both are endangered, it’s gradually revealed, helped to shape a dark string of events that led the killer to a remote corner of the world’s first national park. As political message and pure character-driven drama, it mostly adds up.

Production companies: Facefilms, Tip-Top Prods., Carousel Pictures
Cast: Julian T. Pinder, Adam Levins
Directors: Julian T. Pinder, Adam Levins
Screenwriter: Jeff Staranchuk
Producers: William Borthwick, Tom Spriggs, Rob McGillivray, Tyler Levine
Executive producers: Ben Stranahan, Patrick Hammon, Daniel Ni, Mike Orlick, John Hansen III, Mark Stevens, Nick Sorbara, Vinnit Borrison, Fred Fuchs, Dwayne Staranchuk
Director of photography: Alan Poon
Production designer: Rachel McParland
Costume designer: Marissa Schwartz
Editor: Roland Schlimme
Music: Grayson Matthews collective

No rating, 83 minutes