Reviewed by Sam Hatch
After numerous false starts and abandoned projects, cult film director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) finally returns to the screen with a sprawling, hyperambitious meditation on murder and obsession. After absconding from the director's throne on varied titles such as Mission Impossible III and the skateboarding biopic Lords of Dogtown, it came as a strange surprise for the maestro of darkness to revisit familiar turf with yet another serial killer tale.
Yet Zodiac is an entirely different beast from the Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman film Se7en, which put the director on the map over ten years ago. That film had the luxury of being a wholly scripted tale, free to ratchet up the tension and fully solve all of the crimes by the end of the film. Dredging up the history of the real-life Zodiac killer (who held the San Francisco bay area hostage through fear in the late sixties and early seventies) is a much more difficult affair. For one, the crime has never been officially solved, and though San Francisco police were well on their way in recent years to discovering a full DNA profile of the killer, the case was officially closed without a single custodian due to present-day needs of police resources.
The case is still open in outlying areas tied to the various murders, but the bulk of the DNA evidence lies within the jurisdiction of San Francisco proper, thanks to the numerous saliva-laden letters that were received by the San Francisco Chronicle in a string of cries for media attention. After numerous lovers lane crimes, the Zodiac killer claimed responsibility openly, and often played with police, journalists and the public by encoding some of his missives cryptographically. After two similar killings in the California county of Vallejo, the killer's modus operandi changed dramatically. What remained consistent was his contact with the Chronicle and (at least initially) his access to materials and knowledge only the killer could possibly possess. Eventually it seemed that he devolved into merely laying claim to crimes other than his own, as he began admitting to publicized events well after the fact, and without any evidence to support his confessions.
Luckily for the filmmakers, most of the assaults that he did commit left one victim still alive to tell the story. Otherwise, we would never have known the bizarre details of the stabbing assault on two college kids in Lake Berryessa, wherein the killer donned a Commander Cody-looking executioner's outfit complete with odd, square hood and a breast tunic emblazoned with the Zodiac symbol - a circle quadrisected by a simple crosshair.
Fincher's restaging of the murders left me breathless, more so knowing that the events and conversations are not merely the imaginings of screenwriter James Vanderbilt, but examples of actual eyewitness testimony. The opening scene detailing the attack on Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin is dripping with tension, as the two teens on lover's lane grow leery of an ominous vehicle that keeps appearing behind their own car. There's no apparent reason to fear for their lives (Mageau thinks it's a jealous lover or a cop about to bust them for macking in the first degree), but the audience knows better.
The stabbing assault at Lake Berryessa is likewise unbearably tense, despite the almost obnoxiously comic proclamations from the victim Bryan Hartnell, who comes across as a little too smart for his own good. For reasons still unknown to this date, the Zodiac killer told the students that he was a prison escapee looking to drive to Mexico with their car, and allowed a conversation to ensue for close to a half hour before binding them with identical lengths of cord and stabbing them relentlessly in the back. (He left their keys and wallet at the scene, and did not take their car, deciding instead to list the dates of his crimes on the passenger door.) The serene, bucolic vistas of the small island getaway clash dramatically with the sudden violence, and the entire event seems that much more horrifying because it's taking place on a beautifully golden late afternoon.
In trying to explore as much of the case as possible, the film flirts with multiple main characters before finally settling on Jake Gyllenhaal's Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (who eventually penned the numerous Zodiac non-fiction books on which this film was based), who becomes interested in the case mainly through eavesdropping in the editor's room after the notorious letters begin arriving. He feels that he can offer useful information, but is largely ignored by the entire staff (in one hilarious scene he learns that everyone calls him 'retard' behind his back), including the drunken, coke addled star reporter Paul Avery, played with typical élan by Robert Downey Jr. Paul begrudgingly allows Robert's annoying, overly curious satellite to orbit closer and closer, until the two become partners by default. Avery's numerous columns about the case (he needles the killer by alleging that he's a 'latent homosexual') prove further fodder for the killer's obsession with the media, and he finds himself personally referenced in the letters before too long. Eventually, everybody begins wearing buttons stating that they're "Not Paul Avery" in case the killer is lurking nearby, out for revenge.
On the law enforcement side of the story, we are later introduced to Mark Ruffalo's SFPD detective David Toschi (who seems to be channeling Vincent D'onofrio in Law & Order Criminal Intent mode), and his partner Bill Armstrong, played by Anthony Edwards. Unfortunately for these men, the case is mired in bad communication between other jurisdictions, and the best hope for solving the case lies in the unlikely coordination between their department, Sgt. Jack Mulanax' (Elias Koteas) Vallejo Police office, and Ken Narlow's (Donal Logue) Napa Valley Office. To make matters worse, early descriptions of the killer erroneously pegged him as a black male, allowing two patrol officers who most likely encountered the actual murderer to let him go without questioning.
Slowly, Toschi, Graysmith and Avery become entangled in a cat's cradle of one mutual desire: to suss out the identity of the Zodiac. Toschi resents Avery's amateur policework (the latter man uncovers a connection to an old murder in Riverside California), and later finds himself an uncomfortable ally to the cartoonist's unflagging determination to continue with the cooling case. The film is reminiscent of many other filmic tales of obsession (especially Vertigo), and Graysmith's growing familial woes are highly reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss' plight in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He gets so wrapped up in the hunt, that he actually employs his children to collate evidence, much to the chagrin of his oft-ignored wife (played with mousy realism by Chloe Sevigny).
The medium of film is important to the Zodiac killer as well, and is explored in the film repeatedly. Toschi and Graysmith are both seen attending a special screening of Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, which features the Zodiac knock-off character Scorpio. In that film, Scorpio even usurps the Zodiac's never-realized threat of terrorizing a busload of school children. (Interestingly, Bay Area resident Fincher himself was one of those schoolchildren whose buses were accompanied by police escorts during the height of Zodiac-induced terror). Later, one of the bizarre letters received at the Chronicle mentions that the killer found The Exorcist to be highly 'saterical' (sic). On another strange cinematic note, listen closely and you can hear a reference to the Modesto Bee, which was the small town newspaper that covered the story of a young George Lucas' near-fatal auto crash in the sixties. This was the wake up call that led him to pursue a career as a filmmaker, eventually working with Fincher on multiple projects, including Return of The Jedi.
When one of the suspects is revealed to be involved in the world of film exhibition, it's a perfect match for a Fincher film (the terrorist/teacher Tyler Durden in Fight Club moonlit as a projectionist). Roger Rabbit vocalist Charles Fleischer makes a wonderfully creepy performance as a film aficionado who scares the hell out of Graysmith (and the audience). This also led to one of those weird postmodern moments where I could not be sure if Fincher was trying to mess with my mind again a la the single frame manifestations of Brad Pitt scattered throughout Fight Club. In one scene in Zodiac, Fleischer pulls out a reel of film and begins unspooling it for Graysmith's edification. At this exact moment during the screening I attended, the strangest scratches I had ever seen suddenly plagued the film for about twenty seconds. It felt like shenanigans, but I'm sure I'll be proven wrong by a second viewing. (I saw it again, and it was indeed merely a bum print the first time.)
Fincher does employ other noticeable visual effects to enhance the feel of the film. There's the impossible-to-shoot vertiginous overhead angle in which the camera locks onto cabbie Paul Stine's taxi, and keeps the car centered in the frame no matter how many turns it makes. (Interestingly, the shot resembles the look of the old Grand Theft Auto games, and later in the film we are introduced to the first home video game, as Paul Avery has Pong hooked up to his TV.) One scene involves the superimposed imagery of the Zodiac's writings plastered all over the walls of the Chronicle, in an evolution of the 'Ikea' living room scene from Fight Club. In fact, Fincher seems to reference his own work at other times as well. The coffee station at the Chronicle is straight out of the self-help groups of Fight Club. The introduction to Fleischer's creepy basement is also similar to the first scene in the bowels of Lou's Tavern in that same film. The exploration of one suspect's trailer (made moodier and stranger by the inclusion of numerous wild squirrels wreaking havoc) is tonally similar to the Gluttony victim's residence in Se7en. And when Toschi and partner are forced to wait outside of the handwriting expert's office in expectance of a match, it almost identically mirrors the scene in Se7en in which Pitt and Freeman crash on a couch while waiting for FBI database search results.
I've gotta say, as a frustrated fan of Fincher's (the guy needs to make more movies, damn it!), when his name popped on screen during the initial montage segment (set to the pounding music of San Francisco's own Santana) I experienced a fanboy frisson. It's good to have the guy back. He frames things like nobody else (in an early interview with young eyewitnesses, the children's voices are heard but they never appear on film; in one restaurant scene only a waiter's hands are visible, making an otherwise innocuous scene somehow feel off-kilter), and his eye for detail is immaculate. Paying attention to the farthest walls in the Chronicle office, you can see the out-of-focus details of kitschy 70s art. Later as the story shifts closer to the eighties, the decor has been changed just enough to be completely realistic. Talk of verisimilitude; this film is a damned time machine. When it's finally through after two and a half hours, you truly feel as if you've been there.
I also fell in love with the sound design. Take the investigation of the murder of cabbie Paul Stine. As detective Toschi and his partner examine the scene, the sounds of San Francisco at evening time come to life, punctuated by sirens, dogs barking and the brief stings of police motorcycles zooming from stage left to right. The mix creates a cacophonous, richly layered soundtrack that elevates the viewing experience. It's amazing, technically brilliant work.
There are plenty of fun cultural references to be had as well, though the film refreshingly abstains from the tired cliché of attempting to recreate all of them visually regardless of their relation to the storyline. It's mainly through snippets of radio call-in shows that we hear mention of Satanists (who were extremely popular at the time thanks to Anton Szandor LaVey's San Franciscan Church of Satan, and a diabolical cultural shift in the wake of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby) as well as a plague of ubiquitous hippies. I could swear I also heard a mention of the Rolling Stones' upcoming performance at Altamont as well. There's also a Star Trek reference, as a little-known bit of Zodiac lore is exposed. Famous lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) is chosen by the Zodiac to appear on a live television talk show, during which a discourse with the killer is set to take place. Belli had strangely just appeared on an episode of Star Trek, and the show's co-host mentions that he had just seen him on it, and was sorry to hear that it was being cancelled.
These details bring a level of legitimacy to the proceedings, but Fincher thankfully knows when to reel it in, and we don't drown in pop culture references. Pop music is also used wisely, and as anyone watching TV of late knows, the film makes great use of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man”, which upon recent listen sounds much more modern than it should (it almost has a hip-hop beat for a portion of the verses). Later as the film progresses in time Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" accompanies an ambitious CGI recreation of faux time-lapse stock footage detailing the erection of the Transamerica Building. Fincher has visited Frisco before in his films (The Game, employing the same cinematographer Harris Savides), and he shoots it with his own distinct style. Almost every film and TV show establishes the city with a flyover of the Bay Bridge, leading to the money shot of the neon red Port of San Francisco sign at the foot of Market Street. Fincher switches it up by lensing a variation of the shot during daytime. (The sign does reappear at night a bit later in the film.) A small change, but a testament to his own unique eye.
A lot of the scenes remind me of that other San Franciscan obsession masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. This film mirrors the structure of that one in that the first half is awash in sensational moments (in this case the excitement of the killings and initial thrill of the missives to the press), which is almost wholly absent from the second half, in which we are left alone with the hero's unabated desire to never let go of his self-imposed mission. In both films, the viewer's experience mirrors that of the protagonist, and we begin to yearn for the lost vicarious thrill of those initial moments. As time progresses, Graysmith's desire to solve the case grows unhealthy, and his marriage falls on the rocks because of it. Paul Avery descends into addiction and obscurity. Toschi is abandoned by his partner, yet he still finds himself haunting the scene of the cabbie crime every year on its anniversary in the vain hope that the killer will reappear.
The film omits numerous other crimes that may or may not have been committed by the Zodiac, but it does indulge in the recreation of one woman's nightmarish roadside encounter with a man who kept her and her baby captive in his car for hours. Graysmith himself has an extremely frightening encounter with a movie theater owner, mostly to drive home the fact that his wife is correct in opining that his desire to solve the case is potentially putting himself and his family at risk. Once his intentions to publish a book become public knowledge, he also begins receiving 'heavy breather' phone calls at his home every week. Yet strangely, the film belies its serious subject matter by interjecting very humorous dialogue in numerous scenes. The comedic banter between the characters helps bring a little levity to the dark material, and definitely helps the audience retain interest in the story as the film surpasses the two-hour mark with no apparent finale (or car chase or gunfight) in sight.
The film ultimately bites off more than it can chew, and still only manages to explore a few of the theories and suspects involved, namely Arthur Leigh Allen, who was recently posthumously cleared of DNA relations to the person who licked the stamps and envelopes that were sent to the Chronicle. The film, along with Graysmith, keeps going and going, and the date-stamp subtitles at the bottom of the screen continue advancing at absurd lengths until we're unsure if the story will end at all. Finally, Graysmith's need for closure is seen as the deciding plot factor, and he shuffles closer to his own personal concusion as to who the killer really is. Obviously, there's no way this film can deliver the same visceral excitment as the denouement of Se7en, and the finale is more subtle than anything.That said, I don't find the length to be an inherent flaw in the film. Some may grow impatient with its incessant spiral into madness, much as Graysmith's family grew impatient with his. When someone like Fincher is at the helm, I can watch something like this for days. Already, I'm filled with the desire to go see it again, as it's left me relatively haunted over the past few days. While I still find Fight Club to be his crowning jewel, Zodiac is a masterful, mature piece of work that is definitely multiple notches above his previous film, the entertaining excuse for playful camerawork known as Panic Room. If the San Francisco police ever reopen the case, perhaps he can make a sequel someday.