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Zodiac

by Robert Koehler

The Zodiac killer's first murder

The Zodiac killer's first murder

Produced by Ceán Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy and Arnold Messer; directed by David Fincher; screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based upon the book by Robert Graysmith; cinematography by Harris Savides; production design by Donald Graham Burt; edited by Angus Wall; costumes by Casey Storm; art direction by Keith P. Cunningham; music by David Shire; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey, Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson, John Lacy and Chloë Sevigny. Color, 158 mins. A Paramount Pictures release.

Even before it arrived on American screens during the dead of late winter, David Fincher's Zodiac was destined to be misunderstood, since it was conceived not as a slasher movie or a killer thriller, but as a film with the grand intention of exploring how experiences change human beings. In this way, it recalls some of Stanley Kubrick's similarly (at least initially) misunderstood films, particularly The Shining—which is not, as had been assumed by nearly one and all, an adaptation of a Stephen King horror novel, but a fable about how bourgeois life and the creative mind are irreconcilable opposites, with the former designed to destroy the latter—and Eyes Wide Shut—which is not, as publicity would have had it, a sexy thriller starring Tom and Nicole, but a canny update of the German "strasse" film and an inquiry into what happens when the repressed mind is released through dream.

The misperception of Zodiac can certainly be laid, in part, at the feet of Fincher himself, who has, after all, made the era's most mimicked and possibly most emblematic serial-killer movie with Se7en, which Paramount's Zodiac ads trumpeted, along with Fincher's horrifically miscalculated thriller Panic Room. (Village Voice critic Nathan Lee, in his barely controlled rave—no, ecstatic—review of Zodiac, observes that one viewer, disappointed that he hadn't been treated to a conventional genre film, complained of feeling like he was "stuck in a filing cabinet for three hours," to which Lee replied: "Exactly!") But the most obvious factor that Fincher fans must contend with is how the making of Zodiac has transformed Fincher as a filmmaker. Given the near impossibility of reconciling the precision and depth of James Vanderbilt's Zodiac screenplay with his earlier abysmal work, including Basic (2003), with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson; the horror film, Darkness Falls (2003); and The Rundown (2003), a silly vanity project for The Rock to star in, I'm compelled to consider Zodiac primarily as Fincher's film—this, despite the fact that Vanderbilt wrote the film's script on spec as a personal effort.

Wherever the exact credit ultimately lies, the structure of the story is explicitly attuned to the concept of seriality. As New Yorkers who lived through the "Son of Sam" murders or Angelenos who lived through the Hillside Strangler attacks both know, the serial reemergence of obsessive killers can fundamentally alter cities and the lives within them in ways more profound, even, than sudden natural or manmade catastrophes. Such alteration is particularly startling and even shocking in the case of Zodiac, however, precisely because its world of San Francisco Bay area newspaper offices and police departments, run and staffed overwhelmingly by straight, white men, is so firmly and definitively set apart from the counterculture still thriving in the city around them, a counterculture whose very ethos simply cannot absorb and contend with the coarsening reality shaped by the devious and driven Zodiac. Beyond the killing at Altamont, nothing brought the Bay area's "summer of love" to a more crashing halt than the 1968-1969 emergence of the Zodiac Killer.

Seriality is, to be sure, a basic concern shared by Fritz Lang's and Joseph Losey's versions of M, with the latter particularly interesting as a precursor to Zodiac. Like the Losey work, Zodiac is a true-crime adaptation whose essential elements had been previously filmed—in this case, three times, including a 1971 quickie movie titled The Zodiac Killer, a movie Fincher's characters watch in a theater. As in both M films, Zodiac's structure shows how the seriality of the killer is reduplicated: One group of characters or an individual character initiates a set of actions (in this case, a methodical attempt to collect clues to determine the killer), which are then repeated by another group, and further repeated by a third group. Through this process, obsession grows, but—and this is where Se7en rears its head—it grows not simply of its own accord or because of genre dictates, but because the narrative is itself obsessed with the impact that the accumulation of knowledge can have on people's lives. Curiosity, more than the Zodiac's eclectic arsenal of weapons, may be the most lethal element of all.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal as Paul Avery and Robert Graysmith, San Francisco Chronicle staffers who become obsessed with the crimes

Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal as Paul Avery and Robert Graysmith, San Francisco Chronicle staffers who become obsessed with the crimes

Zodiac begins, quite deceptively, in pure genre mode, observing with cool precision the attack by a shadowy killer on a couple in a lover's lane corner of the northern Bay town of Vallejo. The male, under the haunting strains of Donovan's "The Hurdy Gurdy Man," manages to survive and then disappear, only to reappear in the film's final scene, again capped by Donovan's song. Even here, where the sounds of counterculture can be heard, the couple itself appears to be right out of middle America, celebrating a Fourth of July together.

The first of the killer's several cipher letters, filled with exotic-looking and baffling symbols, arrives at the editorial office of The San Francisco Chronicle, and it's here that Fincher's narrative begins in earnest. Zodiac uses the killer's letters as a medium to do something that's rarely been contemplated in American movies, even in the cinema of Sam Fuller—aligning journalists and cops in a common quest, albeit each necessarily deploying a different method. Henry Hathaway manages something of this sort in his elegant 1948 crime drama, Call Northside 777, where, as in Zodiac, the newspaperman (James Stewart) becomes drawn into finding the real killer as he writes his stories. In Northside, the newspaperman's nemesis is the Chicago P.D. and its culture of corruption, with the film concluding that only honest journalism can seek and find the truth. Fincher wants nothing to do with such palliatives. The men behind the desks at the paper (Jake Gyllenhaal's eager, curious editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith; Robert Downey Jr.'s blithe crime-beat hipster Paul Avery; the police department Mark Ruffalo's dogged Inspector David Toschi; and Anthony Edwards's calmer and suitably named Inspector Bill Armstrong) are blue-collar, pencil-behind-the-ear working guys who arrive at their jobs ready to put in a full eight, ten, or twelve hours. It's their work ethic that makes them allies, and further, it's an alliance borne out of the film's patiently developed observation that the gathering of information doesn't necessarily lead to knowledge; rather, knowledge is realized only from the manner in which the information is gathered.

Se7en is the first Fincher film that seeks to convey this conception of knowledge, but it lacks a certain confidence in its own ideas. Morgan Freeman's elderly cop is already a fount of knowledge, opposed to partner Brad Pitt's angry F-student personality, and they remain fixed in their ways. Fincher makes much of how Freeman spends hours in the library poring through volumes of Dante and Chaucer in search of clues to their serial killer target, while Pitt relies on Cliff's Notes. But in Se7en the pursuit of knowledge is fetishized to the point of near parody. It was not enough for Fincher, at that point in his career (he had directed only Alien 3 three years before in 1992) to simply show Freeman digging into tomes; he felt the need to add the accompaniment of J.S. Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, made more ludicrous by its source as boom-box music for library guards playing cards nearby.

No such crutches accompany Zodiac, which dives into its deep sea of data, dates, and codes with the absolute conviction that its audience will join in the quest. Indeed, the sheer process of watching Zodiac, like watching Kurosawa's Rashomon, establishes a remarkable sympathy with the characters as they journey down various rabbit holes, hit dead ends, yet continue on to possible insight and breakthrough. Unlike the standard killer thriller, which privileges the audience with visual omniscience, Fincher (with the exception of brief dramatizations of three of Zodiac's killings, all of them carefully based on eyewitness testimony and/or evidence culled from Graysmith's two books on the case) simply will not allow it. This is, on its surface, the basic code of whodunit authors, but the denial of information and visual perspective in Zodiac goes far beyond the practice of playing a game with the viewer. (The very game attracting the Zodiac Killer in the first place, is one represented in his own object of cinematic obsession, the 1932 film, The Most Dangerous Game, based on the Richard Connell story about a man-hunting sport). Even as Zodiac implicitly extols the professionalism of its reporters and cops, and quietly mourns their emotional collapse and internal decay as their professionalism is negated by a seemingly unsolvable case, it contemplates our information age and its unintended consequence of overwhelming the information gatherer.

Graysmith meets with the police Inspector in charge of the case, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo)

Graysmith meets with the police Inspector in charge of the case, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo)

The pros do their job, yet grow no closer to the killer. Data is bifurcated, fragmented, split as if the investigation were designed by a cubist painter. The Vallejo P.D. doesn't know what the San Francisco P.D. has, and vice versa; the Chronicle men are similarly in the dark half the time and at the same time, especially in the case of Avery, feel the seduction and sensation of the media chase that Lang so criticized in M (Avery asks Graysmith, with genuine puzzlement, "What's in this for you?"). The frustration in both camps is compounded by each party's aura of respectability. Fincher lends magisterial weight to the architectural spaces of both the Chronicle and the police department, the buildings themselves declaring that important work is done here, and by serious men. The newsroom is filmed much like Alan J. Pakula captured The Washington Post in All the President's Men—a film to which Zodiac should be most closely aligned—with its huge institutional rooms; long lines of desks littered with food, drinks, and smokes; paper piles everywhere; haggard men working long into the night; TV monitors teasingly beaming down from the ceiling; skeptical editors in their protected offices and even—in a sly joke—a Nixon bumper sticker or two. But while Pakula's fledgling pros, known collectively as "Woodstein," manage to uncover a conspiracy at the heart of Nixon's White House, the topflight veterans of Zodiac plunge into a forest of clues from which they can find no path out, leaving nonpros the space and possible clarity to find answers.

The film's essential seriality is made systematic and organic to the hunt; thus, the baton of investigation is passed from Avery to Graysmith, from Armstrong (who wisely moves to another department) to Toschi, from Toschi to Graysmith. In the film's most radical departure from Graysmith's just-the-facts-ma'am books, Zodiac and Zodiac Uncovered, the killer himself becomes almost incidental, as the highly flawed nature of his pursuers becomes central.

The very temptation of closure—a central scene in which Toschi, Armstrong, and Vallejo investigator Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) meet Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), who becomes Graysmith's own pick for the Zodiac—is like the ultimate prick tease, and its denial is what literally drives Avery to drink and Armstrong out the door. Toschi, himself the basis for Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character—whose image in a cinema stand-up poster is framed so that his enormous gun is pointed at Toschi's head—is the classic burnout, but with embers still smoldering enough to recognize, in amateur sleuth Graysmith, the same intellectual curiosity that he has used up. In Ruffalo's exquisitely detailed and realized performance, Toschi becomes by the end, the admiring professor to Graysmith's student, each sitting in a diner as Graysmith's self-described "Boy Scout" cartoonist lays out crucial details that only he, with his personal style of information-gathering, has been able to process. Ruffalo, eyes slightly dazed and brow flattened in dawning amazement, can only sit back, pause, and mutter, "Jesus Christ."

One can hear Fincher muttering this himself. To watch Zodiac unfold is to witness a once-cocky and full-of-beans director of stylish and sometimes self-consciously postmodern movies grow up and turn into a fully mature filmmaker. A rock-hard patience is manifest on the screen at every moment, derived from comprehension—stemming solely from experience—that a story concerned with the exhausting, eroding, but also enlightening effects of time must itself require time to tell.

To purchase Graysmith's account of the Zodiac murders, click here

Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.3 (Summer 2007).

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