Zodiac (2007)

2007-03-02 (General release)

Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.): This is good business for everyone but you.

Robert Greysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal): What do you mean, business?

The first problem for Zodiac is its notorious ending: the real-life killer who plagued the San Francisco Bay area during the early 1970s was never captured. The second problem is this very notion of “real-life,” as Zodiac essentially imagined himself into existence, conjuring a name and persona, then developing perverse relationships with his victims and pursuers. That these were documented by survivors of murder attempts (producing composite sketches and widely circulated details of his demeanor and dress) and turned into “news” stories by reporters and cops has to do with Zodiac’s moment in time. He came into being as tabloid media were coming into chaotic, technology-enhanced self-definition (Patty Hearst was kidnapped in 1974, Son of Sam started shooting in 1976). As Zodiac imposed a brutal truth on communities of past and potential prey, he was also and always a horrific fiction.

David Fincher’s excellent new movie is acutely aware of these problems, and winds them into an intriguing, often witty mix of causes and effects. In so doing, it rejiggers the police procedural, exposing the interdependence of fictions and facts in mythologies of authority. Naturalized and presumptive, these mythologies turn circular, as indicated when, in Zodiac, a screening of 1971’s Dirty Harry provides rueful commentary on the action. While this “real-life” movie about Zodiac submits that only a furious, out-of-bounds cop can catch a psychokiller, Zodiac shows that the cops are repeatedly hampered by rules, demands for warrants or for multi-jurisdictional sanctions.

Even as the means to solve crimes become more complex — what with advances in finger-printing, handwriting and blood type analysis, as well as communications among jurisdictions — they are also, in the early ’70s, frustratingly short of precise. And so the killer’s own provision of “evidence” becomes a crucial element in the efforts to track him: he phones the police to report crimes, he likely phones investigators to breathe ominously in their ears, he sends notes and cards to reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle, apparently taunting, but also, in familiar psychologizing parlance, looking to be defined and even caught in “public.”

The movie begins with a murder, the first one for which the killer took credit: the camera slowly tracks the victims as they drive to a couples’ parking area, a subtitle marking the date and place: July 4, 1969, Vallejo (this sort of detail recurs throughout the movie, at once anchoring events on screen to events in “history” and asserting the irresolution produced by such particulars). In his phone call to the police, Zodiac positions himself beyond comprehension or representation: he reports a “double murder” that turns out to be single (he doesn’t even get his own story quite right), his hulking frame and forgettable face never quite fixed (the several suspects who emerge later in the film resemble this figure, but remain distinct from him).

Lawyer Melvin Belli (BRIAN COX, right) is observed from the control booth of a TV show about the case of a serial killer

Inspector Bill Armstrong (ANTHONY EDWARDS, left)
tracks a serial killer

Police officers arrive at the scene where a young male survivor lies bloody and broken after absorbing multiple bullets; simultaneously, the film cuts in the imminently intersecting plot, as a letter from Zodiac is delivered to the Chronicle: “Please rush to editor!” reads the strangely polite instruction on the envelope. This as editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes his way to his desk, such that he and the letter appear destined to share the frame. He’s in the editor’s office when the letter is read aloud, offering details of the crime to prove knowledge and so, culpability. Though the editors and reporters repeatedly shoo Robert out of hearing range, his interest in the case is soon overwhelming. Robert, like his fellow investigators, becomes obsessed with Zodiac, and vice versa.

The killer’s obsession works all ways, suggesting both his own depravity and the ways he embodies disorder for his antagonists. While his crime scenes remain tantalizingly short of usable clues, his letters and ciphers provide “circumstantial” evidence galore. The movie lays out the resulting frustrations in tidy, carefully disparate images: in addition to the frequent reminders of when scenes occur (“Two weeks later,” “10 hours later,” “One year later”), the film also offers up a few of Fincher’s signature tricks (text that floats over the action à la Fight Club, claustrophobic, gorgeously configured interiors, as in Panic Room, and of course, perversities all around, per The Game and Seven).

The meticulous visuals (courtesy of Harris Savides’ smart use of the Viper FilmStream HD video camera) complement narrative details: Robert is, according to one coworker, a “fuckin’ boy scout,” who loves research and puzzles, though his fixation on the case over years helps to decimate his marriage to Melanie (Chloë Sevigny); crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is brilliantly self-destructive, his descent linked to his harassment by Zodiac (following one threat, the other reporters take to wearing buttons that announce “I’m not Avery”); and the intelligent, intuitive primary inspector on the San Francisco part of the case, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), munches animal crackers provided by his partner (a superb Anthony Edwards), most famous before Zodiac for serving as Steve McQueen’s model for Bullitt.

One of the letters sent by a serial killer to Bay Area newspapers

Paul Avery (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.) is a crime
reporter who gets involved with the
case of a serial killer

Dedicated and earnest, the cops and reporters run into problems at every turn, some caused by their competing interests, as when the equally intense Toschi and Paul get into a predictable skirmish, each eventually retreating into his own furious isolation, Paul’s articulated in addictions of all kinds. Even celebrity layer Melvin Belli (aptly antic Brian Cox) gets a shot at what Paul calls the lucrative “business” of Zodiac, when the killer requests his presence on a call-in TV show in order to get legal and psychological “advice.” This frankly brilliant scene shows the cross-purposes that doom the investigation, with the host, Belli, advertisers (Slinky’s famous jingle jolts the moment’s solemnity when the commercial breaks in), and cops all angling for control. (When the cops all screech to a supposed meeting with a caller who identifies himself as Zodiac, Belli harrumphs, “You guys really know how to put on a secret meeting.”) With egos in the way, only rudimentary technologies (the “telefax”) and legal impediments, the case remains uncracked (though the film provides a half-comic, half-thrilling near-discovery when Robert visits a witness late in the game, and another, less raucous encounter that supports the conclusion Graysmith reaches in his book).

More to the point, all the players lose some part of themselves to the case. That loss is conveyed as tragedy here, a sort of moral concordance for the legal and policing failures symbolized by the case. But the film’s critique is subtler than that, in that the individual effects (grief, rage) is less compelling than what might be called a collective effect. That is, the ways the Zodiac “business” informs ongoing intersections of “crime-solving” institutions, media as much as official bodies.

Zodiac’s much discussed “need” for publicity set a standard for serial killers (and other sorts of sensationalized criminals). Most obviously, he uses the media to “make himself up,” claiming some murders the police believe he did not commit, demanding promotion via “Zodiac” buttons and ciphers printed in newspapers. The publicity-minded killers who came before (Jack the Ripper) and after (the Unabomber, BTK) underscore and replicate this desire for “attention.” But Zodiac, as Zodiac reflects, remains an especially resonant fantasy. In a mess of intersecting obsessions and deceptions, Zodiac finds remarkable coherence, tracing the similar needs, means, and fictions that structure truth.

RATING 9 / 10