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.
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 Chronicle who 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 Zodiac its 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.”
Compared with his colleagues in the serial killer pantheon, the Zodiac was something of an underachiever. His true forte was marketing, complete with a spiffy logo. “The thing that was so stunning about the Zodiac was not what he did but how he hyped it,” says Fincher, reached by telephone on the set of his new movie in New Orleans. “The letters themselves are amazing graphic examples of that. They’re riveting. They’re the reason we’re still talking about this guy, not the body count.” Like Seven‘s John Doe, the Zodiac is in it for the publicity; the most intriguing detail of his story isn’t what he did to his relatively few verifiable victims, but rather the likelihood that he claimed responsibility for murders he read about in the news. “What’s the one thing we know about the Zodiac for sure?” asks a character at the end of the film. “That he reads the Chronicle.”
This helps explain why Zodiac is less concerned with delving into the inner lives of its characters than observing their operative role in larger phenomena. Fincher denies the audience a strong, sympathetic hero. He’s at least as interested in the yellow-on-gray color scheme of the
Chronicle office as he is with the psychological shadings of his protagonists. “Fincher paints with people,” Gyllenhaal recently griped to The New York Times. “It’s tough to be a color.” That doesn’t mean that Zodiac is inhuman, only that it applies attention evenly across the whole canvas, the big picture; it’s a panorama, not a portrait.
The most ingeniously designed narrative in many moons, Zodiac is structured in three parts without conforming to the conventional trajectory of a three-act narrative. The first section details the effect of the Zodiac on the media, filtered through the experience of Graysmith and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a jaded reporter assigned to the story. Part one climaxes with the rupturing of the media’s sense of its own inviolability: The Zodiac sends a letter, and a swatch of blood-soaked fabric, directly to Avery.
The middle part focuses on the police investigation, with a wealth of circumstantial evidence pointing to Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a convicted child molester now employed at an oil refinery. Zodiac makes a convincing case for his guilt, though the mechanics of a whodunit are more important here than who, definitively, done it. If part one scrutinized media manipulation, part two delineates the limits of law enforcement, the lunge and parry of a police procedural destined to go unresolved. The section fades out at the 1971 premiere of Dirty Harry, a film incorporating the Zodiac mythos. “You’re going to catch him,” Graysmith says to Toschi in the lobby. “No,” he replies in resignation. “They’re already making movies about it.”
By the time we get to section three, the sheer volume of information has grown exhausting—which is very much the point. Zodiac ends with the story of Graysmith’s continuing mania for the truth. It is only here, nearly two hours into the tale, that a recognizable human story enters the picture. Delaying that contact is one of Zodiac‘s shrewdest maneuvers; by the time we’re dropped into Graysmith’s drama, we’re almost as overloaded with information as he is.
Toschi remains only nominally involved in the case. Avery has retired to a houseboat and the bottle. Graysmith’s persistence is pitched somewhere between the admirable and the unhinged. As ever, the Zodiac takes his toll. Mrs. Graysmith (Chlo Sevigny) leaves Robert to stew in an apartment heaped with “Zodiac crap”; from first date to breakup, the way she’s sidelined from the story may seem a cliché of the genre, but it makes perfect, poignant sense in a movie with a deft sense of elision.
In its final stretch, as it zeroes in on the processes of a single consciousness,
Zodiac, that endlessly resonant glyph, functions as a movie about its own process. Graysmith’s obsession is mirrored in Fincher’s; the movie soldiers on, accumulating still more facts, unearthing new connections, pushing deeper into the labyrinth, chasing the ghost. The director’s cut is going to be amazing—and intolerable.
Zodiac exhausts more than one genre. Termite art par excellence, it burrows for the sake of burrowing, as fascinated by its own nooks and crannies as Inland Empire. While it mimics the look of 35mm film, it is appropriately, perhaps inevitably, a product of the high-def-video imagination. The movie operates with the back-and-forth insistence of a scanner arm, gathering, filtering, digitizing, and storing an immense catalog of analog enigmas. It might have been titled
A Scanner Darkly.
“The ending for me,” says Fincher, “was always, At what point can you, personally, call it a day, Robert?” The film ends with the publication of Graysmith’s book on the Zodiac, a final twist in the Arthur Leigh Allen theory, and a set of on-screen title cards that twist the theory yet again. As for Graysmith, the Zodiac lives on. Reached by phone from his home in San Francisco, the author mentions Shooting Zodiac, a book he’s finishing about the production of Fincher’s film.