Magnificent Obsession? (Zodiac)

Last October, David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) was the opening movie at the New York Film Festival, where it premiered to ecstatic rave reviews, and in the months that followed, it went on to win every critics’ prize in sight (at least in the US). Three years earlier, Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) was an official selection at Cannes, and was hailed by several American reviewers as one of the best movies of the last decade. Clearly I’m missing something.

Don’t get me wrong; I think both are fine movies. Zodiac in particular benefits from Harris Savides’ deep focus cinematography and Fincher’s talent for ratcheting up the suspense at certain key moments. But are either of these movies, as F.W. Leavis used to say, “intelligent about life”? I don’t think so. Written by James Vanderbilt, Zodiac is based on a non-fiction book by Robert Graysmith (who’s played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal), a former cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with catching a serial killer to the point of alienating his second wife (Chloë Sevigny). Since Graysmith didn’t have any personal connection to the murders beyond an interest in puzzles and codes (such as the ciphers that the killer mailed to the press), it’s not clear why the case was so important to him that he was willing to put himself and his family at risk in order to pursue it. (Unlike the killer, Graysmith doesn’t seem to be motivated by publicity.)

In one scene, it’s pointed out to Graysmith that far more people are killed in traffic accidents than by serial killers (it’s a cliché of detective fiction that hero is constantly being told to let it go), but by making this movie—which devotes the bulk of its 162 minutes to carefully laying out the facts of the case—so many years after the murders occurred, the filmmakers validate Graysmith’s fixation on the killings, regardless of what it cost him personally. After all, it must have been an important case if people are still talking about it all these years later. (On the other hand, the chances of Fincher making a film about auto safety any time in the near future seem fairly remote.) The question is: Why would anyone be interested in another run-of-the-mill sociopath who killed a bunch of people simply because he liked reading about himself in the papers?

Incidentally, the issue of the responsibility of the press (and by extension, movies like this one)—which gave the killer all the publicity he could ever hope for—is carefully elided. According to the film, the Chronicle only decided to print the killer’s letter in order to “save lives,” as the killer threatened to shoot more people if they didn’t (which isn’t to say that he promised to stop if they did), and only after learning that the competition was going to print it anyway, which presumably gets them off the hook. However, by putting the killer’s crimes on the front page, the paper helped to inflate their importance. (Nobody in the film seems very concerned about all the American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians who were killed during the same period.) If they hadn’t, it’s unlikely that Graysmith’s book would’ve become a best-seller, or that the case would seem relevant enough in 2007 to merit a Hollywood movie about it. In other words, both Graysmith and Fincher have a vested interest in making the murderer seem really important, but since the former received some threatening phone calls, and seeing as the lead suspect in the case died ages ago, I suppose they’re off the hook as well.

At one point in the film, Fincher pays homage to the famous sound transitions in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), in which a sentence begun by one character is completed by some one else in another location, and a comparison between the two films is instructive. Lang’s film cuts between the separate attempts of the police and the criminal underworld to catch the same child murderer (Peter Lorre)—who, like the Zodiac killer, sends taunting letters to the press—and the sound bridges underline the similarities between the two groups, which both want to maintain the status quo. Similarly, this movie contrasts the efforts of the police to catch the killer with those of various enterprising amateurs (primarily Graysmith). Early in the film, there’s a montage in which we see various law enforcement agencies working around the clock to crack one of the killer’s coded letters. The sequence ends with a shot of a middle-aged couple reading about it in the paper the next morning, and we subsequently learn that they were the ones to decipher it. However, while Lang considered M to be his greatest film for its social commentary, this movie can’t in any way be regarded as a critique of the status quo.

Additionally, in contrast with the awesome narrative fluidity of Thea von Harbou’s script for M, Fincher’s film proceeds in fits and starts. The movie opens in 1969, when the killer began sending letters to various newspapers in northern California, including the Chronicle. The first two murders that we see in the film both occur outside the city limits, but when the killer subsequently shoots a cab driver in San Francisco, the movie introduces two hardworking police inspectors, William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) and David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), whose investigation leads them to a former bus driver, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), who got fired for molesting children. Eventually, Allen is cleared because his handwriting doesn’t match the killer’s (or does it?), and the trail goes cold. A few years go by, and Graysmith decides to write a book on the case, thinking he might be able to solve it himself. Where Lang’s film was ultimately about the effect that a single individual could have on an entire society from top to bottom, Zodiac is more narrowly focussed on the process of investigation to the exclusion of anything else.

Another difference between this movie and M is Fincher’s professional morbidity. Unlike Lang’s film, where the murderer’s crimes are suggested rather than shown, here we see three of the murders in gruesome detail. In praising Fincher, some reviewers have noted that all three sequences are towards the beginning of the film, as if Fincher were rushing through them before getting to the stuff that really intrigues him. But in each sequence, there’s a long, ominous build-up (we know immediately that the characters are doomed), and two of the shootings are rendered in pornographic slow motion. During the first of these, when the killer opens fire on a pair of teenagers sitting in a parked car, the rock music that’s been playing quietly in the background suddenly comes to the front of the sound mix, as if to say, “This is really cool.” Later, we see the killer hogtie another young couple and stab them repeatedly as the woman screams in agony. Fincher is only elliptical when it comes to how one of the killer’s intended victims managed to escape unharmed, which yields one of the movie’s best sequences, as it elicits the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps in the film’s narration.

With the exception of the Chronicle‘s star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr., who plays the role with customary flair), and an amusing cameo by Brian Cox as a lawyer who’s involved in show business (the proximity of crime and journalism to entertainment is an intriguing subtext that’s ultimately lost in the investigative minutia), the characters are all terminally uninteresting. In movies like this, it’s always necessary to establish that the hero has a wife and family to make him seem more like a person and less like a walking exposition machine, but the film’s characterization of Graysmith’s wife as a nag who thinks he spends too much time at work, like Armstrong and Toschi’s small talk about Japanese food, is so mechanical and by-the-numbers that it’s as if the filmmakers felt obligated to spend so much time on the characters’ relationships but didn’t want to do any more than the bare minimum. Likewise, Fincher’s attempts to establish period are all fairly lead-footed (on a radio call-in show, one listener says that the Zodiac killer is less dangerous than the hippies and free love), especially if one compares them with Lang and von Harbou’s comprehensive grasp of Weimar society.

Certainly the film gives you more bang for your buck than most Hollywood movies these days, but I’m a bit befuddled by the immoderate praise that Fincher’s received in certain corners. Several of his movies have been described as “disturbing” for their graphic violence, but none of them are disturbing in the same sense as Charles Chaplin’s uncommonly serious Monsieur Verdoux (1947), also about a serial killer, in which the title character (Chaplin) remarks, “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify.” Given the period during which Zodiac is set (the late ’60s through mid-’70s, with an epilogue set in the same year as the first Gulf War), it’s curious, though not surprising, that Fincher and company should omit any mention of the war in Vietnam. The film is clearly meant to be disturbing as the Zodiac killer was never caught, but then, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, and they were never caught either.