Most serial killers operate in the shadows, simply wanting to satisfy their homicidal urges in anonymity. Any notoriety they receive is due to the quantity and/or gruesome depravity of their crimes. However, there are others who may not reach a particularly high body count or perversity but become notorious due to their desire to communicate with the public at large. Jack the Ripper, for example, not only sent letters to the police proudly claiming credit for his deranged crimes but also came up with his own distinctive tabloid signature.
The Zodiac was another of this breed of epigrammatic killer. Beginning in July of 1969, the Zodiac terrorized the San Francisco Bay area, killing at least five people while taking credit for many more through his letter writing campaign to the San Francisco Chronicle. It was the letters with their complex cryptograms that really put the spotlight on the Zodiac as a frightening West Coast boogeyman. It was less notable as a murder spree than a cat and mouse game of psychological warfare, the clues in the cryptographs creating a labyrinthine puzzle for a handful of obsessive detectives and journalists to get lost within. David Fincher’s film is really about how these increasingly desperate investigators chased shadows and phantoms for decades while trying to solve the elusive mystery, a case which “officially” remains unsolved to this day.
Robert Graysmith thinks differently, however, and has written about his theories in the books, Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked upon which screenwriter James Vanderbilt based his very concise and effective script. In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, a political cartoonist for the Chronicle who becomes a very unlikely investigator through his obsession with deciphering the codes sent in by the Zodiac. At first, he is on the periphery of the Chronicle’s investigation, which is the beat of writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) with whom he strikes up a friendship. The other two major players are detectives Dave Toschi(Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong(Anthony Edwards). For them, the case becomes an albatross of unfinished business.
As the years take their toll, Avery, Toschi and Armstrong all try to put the Zodiac behind them while the quiet, unassuming cartoonist Graysmith continues his own investigation, sacrificing his marriage and some of his sanity in order to unmask the killer. Graysmith believes to this day that a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, a convicted sex offender, was the Zodiac. Even though Allen was the prime suspect for many involved in the case, the evidence against him was always merely circumstantial and since he died in 1992, there’s little chance of a confession to clear up the issue.
Vanderbilt makes a very strong decision to focus the screenplay on these four men, Graysmith, Avery, Toschi and Armstrong which keeps the story from sprawling out in all directions. Even a short glance across the case’s Wikipedia entry can give you a hint of the story’s mass of details and complexity. Rooting the point of view to their experiences and only dramatizing the killings in which a survivor is on record to tell what exactly happened keeps the film from descending into minutia and sensational speculation like TV’s Unsolved Mysteries.
In one of the DVD’s two excellent commentary tracks, Vanderbilt makes the very effective point of how he and director Fincher wanted to make sure that the killings weren’t held out for the audience like dangling carrots just so they would put up with the dialogue scenes. Most thrillers are indeed constructed in this pavlovian manner, and the denial of the standard pleasures of a thriller like Fincher’s own Seven and Panic Room is one of several ways in which Vanderbilt and Fincher construct a far more unsettling and unsettled crime story.
To this end, Fincher tells the story in the form of a procedural, following the investigation in meticulous detail from lead to lead to dead end after dead end. It’s a film that has much more in common with ‘70s classics like All the President’s Men and The Conversation, films that focused more on process than narrative thrills with an unassuming cinematic style allowing for the accumulation of a tremendous amount of detail.
Fincher sets the tone immediately by using the old Paramount logo from the Gulf and Western days and a color grading that perfectly matches the look of those ‘70s films. He also goes right against the current fashion of fast cutting, which reduces every scene to a flurry of talking heads floating in a random, abstract space. Many scenes are staged and presented in full body shots in which the entire space can be seen. Within the detailed background, the actors can be seen truly interacting with one another immersing the audience deeply in their world. Gone are the emphatic jumps and the flying-camera-through-the-keyhole style of Panic Room. By avoiding the superficial scares he ends up creating a more devastating dread where nothing can be simply reasoned and a killer can roam free despite the best efforts of those committed to stopping him. This makes the film ultimately unsatisfying but in an effective way that captures the frustration of the people involved.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo
Even though the film attempts to achieve a sort of documentary-like reality, it really is a much more complex effort from Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides. There is an underlying surrealism, a poetic and nightmarish vibe that hangs over the whole film. An early shot showing a suburban neighborhood in Vallejo is ostensibly from a moving car but is filmed in such a gliding, perfectly smooth motion that it feels like drifting, floating through a perfect recreation of someone’s dream of 1969. Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (which also is used to wrap up the film) plays over this opening sequence and its very specific late ‘60s style is effective in establishing the period as well as an atmosphere of something vaguely haunting and lost forever. This poetic style allows the film to go beyond the confining realism of docudrama to give us a truer impression of the times the way we know it, through memory and media.
Production wise, the film is faultless. Savides’ photography sets a new standard for digital cinema making very effective use of the new Viper camera to shoot in low light and to take advantage of the ease with which digital images can be manipulated. For a simple film built on character and dialogue there are a surprising amount of effects shots in which some or all of a background was placed onscreen in post production and many scenes in which the entire shot is really a digital painting. The DVD contains several very informative extras that explain the work that went into achieving some of these shots.
All of these effects are fully integrated into the film the way Alfred Hitchcock would blend miniatures and matte paintings into his scenes in order to tell his story most effectively. They never upstage the actors, all of whom give strong performances here. Some, like Anthony Edwards, have never been so good while others like Downey Jr. are so good on a consistent basis that you almost take his work for granted. In many ways, Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith is the lead character and the actor is perfect casting for the role. He underplays everything, so that even slight changes in expression speak volumes about Graysmith’s naiveté and intellectual curiosity.
Mark Ruffalo may have had the most difficult role, however. By the time of the Zodiac murders, Dave Toschi had developed a reputation as a kind of San Francisco “supercop” with the characters of both Bullitt and Dirty Harry being somehow based on him. In reality, Toschi seems more like Columbo than either of those action stars, and there would be a real temptation towards caricature due to the man’s trademark bowties and love of animal crackers. Ruffalo’s perfectly measured performance keeps the character real without sacrificing the slightly stylized voice and physical mannerisms. Ruffalo humanizes the detective and presents him less as a man of action than a very good detective skilled in the process of fundamental investigation through interrogation and old fashioned legwork.
He’s no Dirty Harry, willing to toss his badge away and break the rules that separate cops from criminals, and the film makes this very clear as he is seen walking out of the 1971 Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood fascist police thriller in disgust. This is another example of how Fincher makes effective use of media to create a sense of period as well as commenting on how the media remakes reality as a wish fulfillment fantasy. Dirty Harry presents Toschi as a maverick cop willing to break the law in the name of justice and in the end being “forced” to kill the elusive Zodiac killer, renamed “Scorpio”, since the law has failed to stop him by ordinary means. Zodiac plays on this very tension throughout, by telling a story in which no one gets any closure at all, certainly not in the way that Clint Eastwood gets with his .44 Magnum, “The most powerful handgun in the world — It’ll blow your head CLEAN off!” In the end, if Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac after all, he died peacefully with his head and body in one piece.
Zodiac: The Director’s Cut clocks in at a mighty and Multiplex unfriendly 162 minutes, four minutes longer than the theatrical version but not in any substantial way. Since Fincher has final cut on his films, it’s basically the same film that was released to DVD in the barebones version earlier this year. The most significant change is the almost two minute sequence in which the screen goes black and four years of time passes by through an audio montage of popular music, news broadcast and dialogue. It’s a very interesting concept which creates the effect of an intermission onscreen. When the image finally fades back up its “Four Years Later”. The time spent sitting in the dark, using music to dredge up images of those years in the mind’s eye is a very clever idea although I can see why the decision was made to cut it for theatrical release. This is the one real benefit from the new cut.
The real reason to watch this new 2-disc DVD is to get your hands on all of the extras that have been included. It’s really a treasure chest of information that will take days to digest. On the first disc you get an excellent transfer of the film featuring two commentary tracks. The first track is a relaxed monologue by director Fincher on the choices he made throughout the film and his own personal connection to the material, having grown up in the Bay area as the murders unfolded. The second track features Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal talking about the film from the actor’s perspective as well as screenwriter/producer James Vanderbilt and producer Brad Fischer talking production with none other than crime novelist extraordinaire and Zodiac film fan James Ellroy. Ellroy is effusive about why he thinks Zodiac is one of the greatest American crime films and the man is nothing if not infectious in his over the top enthusiasm.
Disc 2 contains two sets of documentaries, one about the film and one about the case itself. Zodiac Deciphered is a seven-part documentary which chronicles everything imaginable about the production. It runs almost an hour and is an excellent peek at Fincher’s notorious shooting process where actors are placed in an almost Kubrickian situation of take after take after take. In his commentary, Fincher explains his process a bit and some of what he says does actually make sense, no matter how much the actors may complain. He says that most films cut scenes together haphazardly just to get the scene to work due to technical mishaps or a variance in performance. However, he doesn’t want to be forced to make a cut that wasn’t for a storytelling reason and believes that he should be able to get it to work correctly and only cut when there’s a reason to do so, not because an actor flubbed a line or the microphone dropped into frame. It’s a bit perfectionist, perhaps, but artistically valid.
The 15-minute featurette The Visual Effects of Zodiac shows the careful compositing and digital matte work done on the film to recreate San Francisco in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. This is followed by a trio of computer previsualizations for the Blue Rock Springs and Lake Berryessa murder sequences, along with shots of period San Francisco.
David Prior’s feature-length documentary This is the Zodiac Speaking is an in-depth look at the actual Zodiac case with new interviews with almost everyone involved including survivors of several of the attacks. The second documentary feature is His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen which is a profile of the Zodiac suspect from his friends, family, and investigating officers.
Even though it’s another example of studio double dipping, this 2-disc release is really well produced. It covers the subject matter from both the filmmaking and true crime angles and covers both extensively. The title is a bit misleading since this isn’t really much of a “director’s cut”, but it represents a fantastic contained document on the production. Zodiac didn’t exactly break box office records on its theatrical release, but maybe it’s best watched at home on DVD, where you can soak up all the details, go back if you missed something, and then dive into all the supplemental material to become a Zodiac expert. Hopefully, you won’t end up as obsessed as the characters onscreen.