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Film Review: Zodiac

Zodiac (2007; Directed by David Fincher)

Zodiac is an entirely representative David Fincher film, a stylish blood-streaked post-modern noir full of tantalizing clues, confounding symbols and dangling fragments of explanatory paradigms. In a way, it’s Take Two of Seven, the director’s highly-regarded first serial killer thriller. Despite some early sequences depicting the mysterious unsub’s murderous acts, however, Zodiac is less concerned with the horrors of physical mutilation and much more enmeshed in the years-spanning attempts to make some sense of those acts and pin them on a single person. The term is overused to the point of meaningless by now, but Zodiac is indeed a puzzle to be gradually but never really solved, the pieces slotting into place (and sometimes not) but never forming an image that can be clearly deciphered.

Zodiac, of course, is based on a series of real and unsolved murders taking place in the San Francisco Bay area in the late ’60s and early ’70s. As much as the death at Altamont and the Manson Family murders, the Zodiac killings signalled an end of the hippie dream of love and peace in America and foreshadowed the rise of the dark and uncertain predatory future for the country. The murders were attributed to a single unknown man, self-dubbed the Zodiac Killer in one of a series of trickster-ish letters that he sent to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper over a period of several years.

Fincher’s movie is based largely on a bestselling book about the Zodiac killer by Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist at the Chronicle at the time of the murders who later became obsessed with the killings and with solving them. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an awkward, earnest, dogged amateur detective who mostly irritates everyone involved so much that they agree to help him in his investigation in the hope that he’ll just leave them alone, the Graysmith character mostly haunts the background until the last hour and a bit, compulsively focusing on the ciphers that accompanied the Zodiac’s letters. The immediate aftermath of the murders is more the territory of his crime reporter colleague Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose brain and notes Graysmith picks for details about the investigation.

On the police side, SFPD detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, his hair too large and his voice a hoarse whisper) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) enter the case when the Zodiac shoots a cabbie dead on a San Francisco street corner. The case consumes them as well, Toschi in particular, as they cooperate with local investigators in the various jurisdictions in which the Zodiac took his victims to find some thread to follow to the end. It’s only well after the trail has gone almost entirely cold that Graysmith gets serious (a bit too serious) about piecing together a case for his book, enlisting Toschi in particular but also the county detectives and various experts in the effort.

Seeing as there were many suspects but never any firm charges laid in the Zodiac case, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt never fully incriminate anyone on celluloid. The script is indeed rather measured in its application of various strands of circumstantial evidence to a number of suspects (in one frightening case, to a man with a creepy basement that Graysmith finds himself in at night). Zodiac therefore becomes a garden of forking paths leading in different directions and back upon itself, a fascinating treatise on the impossibility of closure and the ever-moving target that is intelligible certainty.

This is fertile creative ground for Fincher, and what Zodiac lacks in definite conclusions it more than makes up for in immersive period detail, visual style, and technical prowess. The aforementioned murder sequences early in the film are riveting, surprising, and vicariously terrifying in their unpredictability; a confusing highway kidnapping of a woman and her infant that may have been committed by the Zodiac or may not have been is similarly taut. When characters lay out complex scenarios and sift through scraps of evidence, there are no cutaways, flashbacks, or other cinematic conceits. Fincher points his camera at his actors and lets them talk, illustrating what needs illustrating with only their words, documents, and whatever else is at hand.

Few other directors have such a keen sense of when to get slick (CG-assisted long shots of the Port of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, for example) and when to show impeccable restraint, keeping things simple and trusting the potency of the script to make its full impact. The movie’s highlight sequence is a superb example of this restraint at work. A police interview of Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the favoured suspect of both Toschi and Graysmith who was later identified as the Zodiac by the killer’s only surviving victim, is tense and perfectly structured. Elements of Zodiac-pointing evidence rise to the surface like the air bubbles of a submerged crocodile, and Fincher composes the questioners at the centre of his frame in a series of reaction shots, showing them processing Allen’s intriguing and suspicious answers one by one.

Zodiac stretches its legs a little too much after a screw-tightening start, and the subplot about Graysmith’s obsessive digging into Zodiac lore destroying his marriage (while true) is a bit pat for my liking. Gyllenhaal is convincingly vulnerable and uprightly nerdy in a way that he’s rarely been allowed to be since Donnie Darko; if Jimmy Stewart were alive today, this is the kind of part he’d play with gusto. Downey, Jr. plays exactly to type as a smoking, boozing loose cannon, but drops out of the movie just as the investigation starts to get interesting (maybe it gets interesting because he drops out of the movie). Fine character actors are sprinkled across the supporting roles, among them Philip Baker Hall as a handwriting analyst, Donal Logue and Elias Koteas as the rural police detectives, and Brian Cox vamping about as a famous lawyer who gets drawn into the case at the Zodiac’s request. But Fincher’s masterful control of the film is the real star. A strong and absorbing puzzle-piece thriller, Zodiac is a whodunnit that knows it can never be solved and therefore finds transcendence in its embrace of the lack of closure.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. October 4, 2014 at 9:12 pm
  2. June 26, 2015 at 10:05 am

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