EDITOR’S NOTE: With all the annual ”Top Ten Lists” lists sending our memories racing back to the best that 2007 had to offer, we thought this would be a good time to post a review of a fine borderline genre film that we had previously overlooked because it came out early last year, before Cinefantastique Online powered up.
David Fincher (director of SEVEN) returns to serial killer territory with this fact-based movie about the infamous Zodiac murderer, who taunted police in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Based on two non-fiction books by Robert Graysmith, the lengthy scenario tries to pack in as much information as possible about the search for the killer, whose identity was never determined. (No one was ever indicted, much less convicted, for any of the Zodiac’s crimes.) Early sequences – which depict the handful of murders definitely attributed to Zodiac (he claimed numerous others) – are grim and horrifying, playing upon audience awareness that these are real people who died. Later, the film slides into a bit of a rut as the case grows cold and the efforts to solve it fall to Graysmith (played by Gyllenhaal), a newspaper cartoonist-turned-amateur-sleuth, who refuses to give up the search. Nevertheless, ZODIAC displays an admirable attention to the details of the case and the era, emerging as a solid effort to capture a piece of history on celluloid.
The film is less a horror movie or a murder-mystery than a police procedural, although in this case the process of the newspaper reporters receives as much attention as the police. The large ensemble cast perform their roles with conviction, and the script makes a sincere attempt to suggest the toll on those involved.
Technically, ZODIAC is a marvel of moody photography, as it tries to capture the funereal pall hanging over a metropolitan city in the grip of fear. Costumes, production design, and hairstyles do a wonderful job of capturing the period – aided by a wonderful selection of timely songs on the soundtrack. As a director, Fincher again proves himself a master not only at building suspense but also at maintaining an atmosphere of tension and unease even during the quiet scenes.
Despite the length, not every facet of the real events can be detailed in full; in particular, the script seldom directly examines the Zodiac media phenomenon, reserving its focus for the activities of police and reporters. This leaves the story feeling a bit hollow in its middle section; after all, the truly interesting thing about the Zodiac (like Jack the Ripper) is his anonymity, which allows him to serve as a tabula rasaon which frightened people project their own fears, the blank face of the unknown killer serving as a Boogey-Man of almost mythic proportions. Media coverage certainly had a hand in building up this image, and in a sense the very existence of this film continues in that tradition. Yet there is little effort spent overtly examining this aspect, outside of a brief scene in which reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) deflates the Zodiac myth by pointing out that the Zodiac letters have claimed many more victims than he has actually killed.
Fortunately, ZODIAC manages to suggests its deeper intentions even without explicitly announcing them in the dialogue. As decades pass, memories fade, and evidence deteriorates, it becomes clear that Zodiac will never be brought to trial, yet Graysmith persists because he wants to be able to look the killer in the eye and know the truth. In effect, his quest – and the film’s – is to de-mystify the killer by revealing his name and face, showing him to be nothing more than a homicidal criminal, not some kind of evil genius of cosmic proportions.
ZODIAC’s biggest impact lies in capturing the sense of tragedy that resides in the inability to capture the killer: as years go by, the fear surrounding the Zodiac case fades, replaced by other deaths (some unsolved murders, some just accidents), and those charged with tracking down killer must move on with their lives, shifting priorities to newer cases or making personal decisions to drop the hunt for the sake of spending time with their families. The Zodiac becomes a footnote in history, his victims almost forgotten. Graysmith’s hunt becomes a last chance to prevent the reality from disappearing down the memory hole, eclipsed by the myth of the Zodiac.
The film eventually fingers a likely suspect (who will be familiar to those familiar with the case). Although justice is never achieved in the traditional sense, the identification offers a kind of closure, wonderfully detailed in a final scene that brings the film full circle, with a victim from the opening scene (who survived several gunshots) identifying a mug shot, while the song that played during his shooting (Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) reprises on the soundtrack. It’s a heart-breaking moment that offers a glimmer of light while not ignoring the long shadows that will forever haunt those involved in the case. Unlike SEVEN, ZODIAC is not a depressingly nihilistic film. Instead, it is simply sad. But there is something undeniably uplifting in its refusal to surrender to the darkness.
ZODIAC (2007). Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on Zodiac and Zodiac Unmaskedby Robert Graysmith. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, John Lacy, Chloe Sevigny, John Terry, Candy Clark, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall.
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