MIND WARP : David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ [8/10]

Published on: May 14th, 2007

When the truth gets buried deep,
beneath a thousand years of sleep,
time demands a turn around,
and once again the truth is found
— George Harrison, Hurdy Gurdy Man*

And what do we have here? Like Churchill’s Russia, Zodiac – David Fincher’s belated followup to Panic Room (2002) – is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” And appropriately enough for a film about one of America’s most famously unsolved homicide cases (given the circs, one holds back from saying “serial-killer cases”), there’s something tantalisingly ungraspable about this movie – the constant sense that some ‘key’ or ultimate meaning is just around the corner, just inches away, just beyond the edge of the frame. It feels very much like the kind of film which will repay multiple viewings – but there’s also the definite impression that this ‘ungraspability’ will only deepen, perhaps to fatal degree, as a result…

Zodiac is, at first glance, a pretty straightforward policier-cum-drama-thriller about actual events – killings which have already inspired many true-crime books, numerous songs, several websites, and more than a handful of films, from The Zodiac Murders (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971) to The Mean Season (1985) – a film which pretty much defines the term ‘guilty pleasure’) – and even The Exorcist III (1990).

The ‘Zodiac killer’ – as he (/she/they) became known – is reckoned responsible for at least five murders which took place in California between December 1968 and October 1969. But such is the byzantine complexity of the case, and so controversial are the various theories, that it’s very hard to say anything further with any kind of certainty or confidence. Indeed, there’s a school of thought that says there was no ‘Zodiac killer’ at all – which is perhaps why, through the course of Zodiac the movie, the ‘perp’ is played by several different performers.

James Vanderbilt’s clever (but thankfully not clever-clever) script concentrates on three men whose lives become intimately bound up with the case. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) is the San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter tasked with following the unfolding developments. He maintains an air of flip, quizzical detachment (entertaining, if reminiscent of Downey’s performance in A Scanner Darkly) towards what he initially regards as just another story –  until he receives death threats from the anonymous letter-writer who claims to be responsible for the murder-spree.

Avery’s cartoonist colleague, straight-arrow former ‘Eagle Scout’ Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is fascinated with the Zodiac affair from the start, and as the months turn into years without the culprit(s) being caught, Graysmith’s interest slowly shades into full-blown obsession. Graysmith – whose two bestselling books on the Zodiac are the basis for the film’s screenplay – proves rather more dogged in pursuit of the various suspects than the increasingly-exasperated police officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo): a cop whose charisma and individual style (he’s fond of bow ties and wears his gun in an innovative shoulder-hoster) inspired the characters played by Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco – and, in a rather more oblique way, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, whose serial-killer ‘Scorpio’ was obviously modelled on ‘Zodiac.’

Not that Toschi’s methods or morals can be even casually compared with Harry Callahan’s. Indeed, a recurring sub-theme of Zodiac is the difference between the real Zodiac-hunter and the fictional one – Toschi, who prides himself on following ‘due process’,  is shown prematurely exiting a preview screening of Dirty Harry in a state of agitated discomfort – and the wider difference between reality and its cinematic representation. We’re seldom allowed to forget the artifice of what we’re watching: almost every scene is accompanied by an on-screen title informing us specifically where and when the action is taking place, this barrage of locations and dates soon becoming something of a running, totally deadpan in-joke, perhaps an example of a narrative clinging to a kind of anally-retentive certainty amid a subject notorious for breeding such nebulous speculation.

Fincher, always fond of visual trickery, is largely on ‘best behaviour’ here, but he punctuates the nuts-and-bolts cop/reporter procedural material (which makes up the bulk of the picture) with a series of audacious CGI flourishes which, again, serve to remind us that Zodiac is, for all its verisimilitude, “only” a movie. These include a “stop-motion” style sequence in which San Francisco’s landmark TransAmerica pyramid is shown being constructed from base to peak (the grace and speed of this process in mockingly stark contrast to the halting progress of the three protagonists on Zodiac’s trail) and a semi-hallucinatory scene in which Graysmith imagines the Zodiac’s letters as three-dimensional projections on the newspaper office’s walls.

Indeed, there’s an abundance of CGI used throughout the film, but it’s integrated so smoothly that most viewers won’t even recognise it as such – this concealment aided by Fincher’s decision to shoot the entire picture (via cinematographer Harris Savides) using the latest high-definition digital video. He’s clearly having terrific fun exploring this new medium – much like his rival for the title of Hollywood’s most famously obsessive perfectionist, Michael Mann, on the similarly DV-shot Collateral and Miami Vice. There’s a fine essay or two to be written – ideally by Thom Anderson – on the parallels and contrasts to be drawn between Zodiac and the two Mann movies: how’s about “Kubrick’s Children” for a title?

One thing that marks Fincher out from both Kubrick and Mann is that he has much more of a sense of humour, albeit often a jet-black one. While predominantly serious, Zodiac features a surprising number of comic moments (Ruffalo brings the house down at one point with the simple word “squirrels”), not that this ever interferes with the development and maintenance of dramatic tension. There’s all manner of cinematic in-jokes and movie references along the way, in what’s clearly intended as something akin to the ‘last word’ in serial-killer movies – based as it is on the real-life ur-text behind so many examples of the sub-genre – finally providing Fincher with a valid excuse to revisit terrain he so splashily explored in 1995’s Se7en.

There are countless allusions to 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game (aka The Hounds of Zaroff), based on what was supposedly the Zodiac’s favourite “book” (it’s actually a short story), while the neon-lit Chronicle scenes represent an extended, rather slavish hommage to All the President’s Men. That film’s composer David Shire was even brought out of semi-retirement to pen the unobtrusively sleek score, which briefly detours into Herrmann/Hitchcock mode for a brief, suitably (ahem) vertiginous aerial shot looking down on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Around the three solid central performances, meanwhile – and Fincher navigates between the trio with near-balletic grace – the film accumulates a large galaxy of expert supporting players, with notable scene-stealers including Brian Cox (as a preeningly showboating celebrity lawyer) and John Carroll Lynch (superb as the number one suspect). And then there’s Charles Fleischer, who turns in perhaps the creepiest cameo since Robert Blake in Lost Highway in the film’s most straightforwardly scary and disturbing scene, when Graysmith rather ill-advisedly travels to meet a potential source of information and quickly realises he might be about to become the Zodiac’s next victim in a terrific sequence which shows Fincher at the very top of his (manipulative) game.

Graysmith, of course, is the one character who we know survives to tell the tale – quite literally, in his case. But as the film’s poster reminds us, “there’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer”, and by the finale it’s clear that Graysmith’s all-consuming engagement with the Zodiac mystery has exacted a heavy price. His long-suffering wife (Chloe Sevigny, droll and sidelined) has departed with their three children, realising that – as quite often happens with men of all ages – a harmless hobby has developed into something all-consuming, a self-perpetuating and temptingly cosy network of endless trivia and arcana.

On one level, Zodiac is about how the four protagonists – Graysmith, Avery, Toschi and the killer(s) – deal in very different ways with the idea of celebrity, in an America where “celebrity culture” is starting to affect – and perhaps corrupt – every area of life. Even Cox’s Melvin Belli is an early epitome of the “celebrity lawyer,” finding time among his caseload for an acting gig in Star Trek. For Graysmith, the Zodiac pursuit clearly has social value – his own kids are potential targets – but there’s some aspect of his character which is guided by what Michel Piccoli in Belle de Jour called “pure compulsion” (paralleling Zodiac’s own compulsion to kill?) Just like his son who, when we first see him, swallows his toothpaste rather than spitting it out because “it was minty,” Graysmith can’t quite help himself getting deeper and deeper into the Zodiac universe even though he’s aware it’s perhaps not a sensible mode de vie.

The audience, meanwhile, is put into an interestingly tricky position: Fincher and Vanderbilt feed us enough clues and leads to stoke our curiosity and imagination so that we join Graysmith (and, to a lesser extent, Avery and Toschi) as he’s drawn further and further into the enticingly tangled Zodiac web. The further he – and we – go, the more likely we are to continue, on the basis that we don’t want to have devoted so much time and effort in vain. Not that the picture ever feels draggy or padded – because everything we see may provide vital information and/or clues, our attention is maintained throughout what looks on paper like a dauntingly excessive running-time. Indeed, Zodiac very much like the kind of film which will repay multiple viewings** – but there’s also the definite impression that this dense text’s many mysteries may then only deepen, perhaps to fatal degree…

Neil  Young
15th/16th May, 2007

ZODIAC : [8/10] : USA 2007 : David FINCHER : 158 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 14th May 2007 – press show

Neil  Young
29th May, 2007

ZODIAC : [8/10] : USA 2007 : David FINCHER : 158 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Sunderland (UK), 18th May 2007 – public show (paid  £5.50)

* pedants take note – this is the additional verse written by Harrison to go at the end of Donovan’s song
http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/hurdygur.htm

 

** in fact, after a second viewing, I didn’t find myself being sucked into the Zodiac’s infinite web. The film didn’t ‘deepen’ (unlike The GameZodiac doesn’t improve the more you watch and/or think about it), but nor did it ‘shallow’ in any way. What does stand out is the way Fincher sets up and then subverts certain genre conventions: the three murderous attacks come (I’d estimate) before the first two reels (40 mins) are over, and after that there’s really nothing to suggest we’re watching a conventional serial-killer movie at all.
If anything, Fincher seems to mock us for expecting Seven Part II (I know of one would-be viewer who was most crestfallen when I told him that the fact that the picture is called Zodiac doesn’t imply that the killer is going to do away with a dozen victims, let alone dispatch them in a manner suitable to the victim’s star-sign).
The film is also much funnier than you remember after a single viewing – indeed, the whole second half is effectively a big black joke at Graysmith’s expense, all the more sardonic and amusing for being aimed at the bloke on whose books the movies are ostensibly based. While no masterpiece, Zodiac is clearly several cuts above the usual run of Hollywood thrillers – and although by no means Fincher’s best, it provides welcome evidence that half a decade ‘off’ hasn’t dimmed his powers to any noticeable degree.

 

 

“Bay Theater, Ashland, Wisconsin, 1973” by Stephen Shore. The photographer was a key influence on the period look of ‘Zodiac’


—– Original Message —-
From: Neil Young <neil@c*d*s.d*m*n.co.uk>
To: r**********@yahoo.com
Sent: Monday, May 14, 2007 4:01:17 PM
Subject: signs of

saw ZODIAC today and, predictably, liked it a lot. I don’t know what it is about Fincher, but he always manages to hit the target with me, while rubbing so many people up the wrong way…

so much to like here, especially for we guilty-pleasure MEAN SEASON fans… in its own way, the “floorboard” moment was just as impressive as that amazing “Transamerica pyramid” bit of show-offery… If only Sevigny had had more to do (then again, Graysmith did sideline her from his life, so I suppose it’s fitting she suffers the same fate in the film). Compare and contrast: Zodiac and Collateral, Zodiac and Miami Vice – I think I’ll leave those essays to Thom Anderson.

Yes, there are flaws, but I didn’t mind them much at all. What I really liked is the sneaky way it’s structured so you’re becoming more and more engrossed in the Zodiac speculation and lore while being told simultaneously (and realising) that becoming engrossed in Zodiac speculation and lore is to wade deeper and deeper into a dangerous swamp… On that basis, I was perhaps slightly disappointed that the ending was so “emphatic” in identifying [[DELETED]] as the killer – or was it?

I need to see it again, perhaps with a “live” audience (as opposed to the near-empty cinema at the press show this morning). Because, rather like Panic Room, I find Zodiac to be a film about the movies, the tropes and conventions, how we watch them, how they influence us, etc etc, which justifies all of Fincher’s self-indulgent little “jokes” (my favourite: Candy Clark popping up so soon after we’ve just watched a scene involving a very American Graffiti-ish “lovers’ lane” scene). Perhaps The Most Dangerous Game will appear as a DVD add-on – I always preferred the British title myself, The Hounds of Zaroff (“zaroff with a zee?” as somebody semi-innocently asks…)

———————————————-

Hi Neil,

Yes, Michael Mann is a bit of a failure as an “essayist,” even though he inspires some excellent essays — or maybe “fan fiction.” Certainly, Zodiac has more heft than Miami Vice, my original assessment of which upon leaving the theatre involved smiling wide, cocking both thumbs and saying “awesome! That was a BAD movie!” I stand by that assessment even today.

I think the end of Zodiac is sneaky — definitive and not. But either way, it’s not affecting — the film is admirable but not overwhelming (compare it to the amazingly similar Memories of Murder and you see what I mean).

=

The band is the brainchild of Mark Manning, a graphic artist and editor of London‘s “Flexipop” magazine. Deciding to experience the debauchery of life as a decadent rock star, he assumed the alter ego, Zodiac Mindwarp, and formed the Love Reaction in the mid 1980s together with guitarist Cobalt Stargazer, who curiously enough once also played for Wham!. Other band members, who came and went over the years, include Kid Chaos, Slam Thunderhide, Evil Bastard, Trash D Garbage, Flash Bastard, Suzy X, Tex Diablo, and Robbie Vom.

Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction play an ultra-sleazy style of commercial hard rock featuring big riffs and choruses, as was the trend in the band’s heyday of the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s. The outrageously camp lyrics are intended as self-parody, and can be seen as either humorous, by those who “get the joke”, or offensive, by those who take them at face value, for their often lascivious and misogynist tone. Song titles like “Back Seat Education”, “Feed My Frankenstein“, “High Heeled Heaven”, and “Trash Madonna” illustrate Mindwarp’s tongue-in-cheek approach. Lyrical content also exhibits a send up of cult worship, often of Zodiac Mindwarp’s self-proclaimed raging libido, with the frontman claiming the titles, sex fuhrer, love dictator, and high priest of love. Songs such as “Holy Gasoline”, “President of the United States of Love”, “Messianic Reprise”, and “Elvis Died for You” are similarly inclined.

The act produced a UK Singles Chart Top 20 hit with the breakthrough record “Prime Mover”, a song that was inspired musically by Hawkwind‘s 1977 track “Quark, Strangeness and Charm“, itself heavily inspired by the German Group NEU!

Occasionally referred to as “biker rock”, the band’s style of hard rock is reflected in their outlandish attire, which tends to parody the post-apocalyptic Mad Max biker look. However, they have adopted a more common “street look” recently.