To Catch a Predator

In his hunt for the Zodiac killer, David Fincher forgoes the personal for the process, and in the process Nathan Lee geeks out.

In the unforgettable Zodiac, three shots stand out.The first comes early, climaxing a brisk introduction to one of the film's primary settings, the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle. Gliding through hallways with the suavity you'd expect from the director, David Fincher, and the cinematographer, Harris Savides, the camera assumes the point of view of an object inside an overflowing mail cart. It is August 1, 1969. The first of many letters and cryptograms by a serial killer calling himself the Zodiac has been delivered to the newspaper.

The second shot, captured by helicopter or perhaps digitally composited, is an aerial view of a taxi motoring through San Francisco. Starting at the intersection of Mason and Geary, the God's-eye-view follows the vehicle to the corner of Washington and Cherry, at which point the passenger, the Zodiac, shoots the driver, Paul Stein. Patterned with a series of space-collapsing dissolves, the sequence is scored to disembodied voices on a talk radio program discussing the man—the media phenomenon—that has gripped the city in fear and fascination.

The third, arriving about halfway through the film, literalizes the theme of the first two, and indeed of Zodiac itself: the relationship of man to media. Several years have passed; the body count has mounted; the letters have piled up. The efforts of Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) have failed to turn up a suspect. A tracking shot follows them through the offices of the San Francisco Police Department, the other nexus of the film. The image is layered with a digital scrawl of letters, phrases, and symbols from the Zodiac missives, literally engulfing the heroes in a text that has thus far led nowhere.

The Zodiac killer strikes again.
photo: Merrick Morton/Warner Bros Ent. and Paramount Pictures
The Zodiac killer strikes again.

Thus far: There is much more to come. With a runtime of over two and a half hours, this relentlessly swift film super-charges every minute with a maximum of minutiae. Dizzyingly dense, intricate in the extreme, Zodiac is the most information-packed procedural since JFK, though far more restrained when it comes to theorizing. The screenplay, meticulously engineered by James Vanderbilt, has been adapted from a pair of books by Robert Graysmith (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist at the Chroniclewho glommed on to the Zodiac case and eventually took it on as his life's work. Everything has been checked against verifiable sources, then staged with the utmost fidelity and precision; note how Fincher resists dramatizing the events in Paul Stein's cab, sticking to a representation of his known route. The result is an orgy of empiricism, a monumental geek fest of fact-checking, speculation, deduction, code breaking, note taking, forensics, graphology, fingerprint analysis, warrant wrangling, witness testimony, phone calls, news reports. "I felt like I was stuck in a filing cabinet for three hours," complained one viewer. Exactly!

A remarkable feat of concentration, Zodiac is a fully mature triumph for reasons that bring us back to that trio of signature shots. Their explicit virtuosity stands out in a surface that forgoes the visual sweep of Seven, Fight Club, or Panic Room. Mechanical as he can be, Fincher tends to the operatic: big emotions, massive denouements, portentousness, flamboyance. Zodiac, by contrast, plays out with the cool calibrations of a 12-tone piano suite, advancing with a detached, mathematical precision capable of great variety and nuance, yet controlled by a strict discipline. It's a film that never raises its voice because it needs to speak clearly and carefully. It's got a hell of a lot to say.

Talk to Fincher and he'll tell you he just wanted to tell a damn good story. Mission accomplished. Yet it's his very lack of pretense, coupled with a determination to get the facts down with maximum economy and objectivity, that gives Zodiacits hard, bright integrity. As a crime saga, newspaper drama, and period piece, it works just fine. As an allegory of life in the information age, it blew my mind.

The medium is the message in Zodiac. That's what those three shots mean, and why they're delivered with extra rhetorical emphasis; the Zodiac is never given an attention-grabbing p.o.v. shot, but his communiqué is. A serial-killer flick that isn't really about a serial killer, a procedural keyed to the psychology of procedure more than the men engaged in it, Zodiac is an information system of bewildering complexity laid out for our contemplation. It's an epic, reflective analysis of how one canny lunatic triggered an all-consuming flood of data that swept up, and drowned, three different entities: the media, the police, and one man's life. Zodiac returns the serial-killer flick to its roots in Fritz Lang's M, a movie likewise preoccupied with technology, symbols, spatial patterns, communication systems.

Anyone expecting a reprise of Seven-style shivers and Grand Guignol psychodrama will be gravely disappointed. Yet common to both films is the notion of their villains as the inevitable manifestation of a troubled zeitgeist. Seven's John Doe seeks to chastise the debased, apathetic modern world through a kind of radical installation/performance art; an appreciative audience, shocked at his subversive daring, is an essential component of his project. His provocation is basically an extremely twisted publicity stunt. "We are talking about people who are mentally ill," protests Brad Pitt's wrathful hothead. "We are talking about people who are fucking crazy." "No, no we are not," replies Morgan Freeman's world-weary detective. "We're talking about everyday life here."


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