(This post is being published for Scenes of the Crime Blogathon under category Police Stories and Private Eyes. David Fincher brings in an All the President’s Men style realistic narration to this serial killer tale. Unlike Se7en’s more frenetic, visual style, this runs along at a more leisurely pace, slow, taking in the scenes. But worth a watch due to the character build up, narration and shot taking).
I like killing people because it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest, because man is the most dangerous animal of all. To kill something is the most thrilling experience. It is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl. The best part of it is that when I die, I will be reborn in paradise and all that I have killed will become my slaves. I will not give you my name because you will try to slow down or stop my collecting of slaves for my afterlife.
Zodiac is David Fincher’s second shot at the serial killer genre, after Se7en, the similarities end there. In fact the movie itself has hardly any resemblance to most of Fincher’s movies, before and after. Unlike Fincher’s standard frenetic visual style, with cross cuts, zooms and rapid editing, Zodiac ambles at a leisurely pace, taking it’s own sweet time to get to the point. Zodiac owes more to movies like All The President’s Men, with it’s documentary style realism, large amount of conversation, heavy emphasis on procedure and detail. Which is where i think the movie suffered with critics and audiences. People went to Zodiac, expecting to see Se7en, Version 2.0, only here it was not even close to Se7en, it was not even like most other serial killer movies. Se7en a great movie, was pretty much an adrenaline pumping thriller, that was much more visually stylish. Ok you can go into all the philosophical ramblings about John Doe being inspired by the 7 Deadly Sins, and the lone crusader trying to clean up the world theories, but end of day, it was an action thriller that had all the right ingredients in place- two cops, one hot headed, the other one more calmer and wiser, a diabolical serial killer with his own “You hate it or love it” agenda, chase scenes, thundering music, cops running around, police sirens and top it off with a devilish twist. Add to it Brad Pitt, an ever reliable Morgan Freeman, and the mix was too good to resist.
Also unlike Se7en’s more fictional setting and storyline, Zodiac was based on a true life serial killer, in the San Francisco area, who had terrorized the citizens in the early 70′s. To date it still remains one of the unsolved cases in the Police files, with no one sure of the killer’s identity. I think this was the reason why Fincher adopted a radically different style from Se7en, in fact here not much is known of the killer. Even the man suspected of being the killer, remains only a suspect. In many ways Fincher stays true to the original source material the book written by Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco based political cartoonist who had covered the case extensively. The focus in the movie is more on the protagonists, covering the case, and how it affects them emotionally.
The movie starts off in a typical Fincher style, covering the first murder. Here it is of a young couple , Darlene and Mike at a lovers lane in Vallejo. Again loved here, the way Fincher sets up the entire murder, Mike first noticing someone tailing them, Darlene initally not too concerned, slowly beginning to be scared. Fincher, wonderfully builds up the tension here, cutting between the faces of the couple, the trailing headlights and the speedometer going faster. The cat and mouse game the pursuing car plays out, is tension filled, especially the moment when the couple seemingly relieved that he has left, suddenly find the lights switched on. The shooting is quite brutal, and unsettling. And then the voice of the killer, informing the cops of the murder.
Fincher again shows his penchant for visual imagery, with the camera tracking the mailman, going into the different levels of the San Francisco Chronicle office, especially the way he keeps zooming in on the latter’s bag, as he delivers the mail. This is where we come across the main players in the entire drama, Paul Avery( Robert Downey Jr), the crime reporter and Robert Graysmith( Jake Gyllenhall) the political cartoonist. Many have complained about Zodiac being too wordy, but for me it was the dialogues that actually built up the characters and the story. In this scene, the chitchat between Paul and Robert, drops in hints about the latter, his troubled relationship with his wife, and his lack of satisfaction with his present job. But again while wondering about why Fincher keeps the camera zooming in on the mail bag, we get the answer, when the now empty mail bag comes to the publisher, he picks up a special letter, and then his eyes going wide as he reads it.
Sheer visual brilliance here by Fincher, if we observe the scene, throughout while zooming on the mail bag, the focus is on a special letter, and we get to see why. Again here Graysmith’s feelings are shown, when he is looking at the group of people in animated discussion through the glass panel. The letter is from the Zodiac killer, where he claims responsibility for the murders of the couple we had seen in the opening scene, and asks the paper to print a cipher of his on the opening page. But more interesting here than the killer and the motivations, is the way Graysmith manages to squeeze into the entire affair. While Avery is the obvious star of the newspaper, Graysmith wants to be a part of what he sees as the real action, the crime department. It is clear that he is not taken seriously, as the Editor exclaims “Remind me again, what the cartoonist is doing here?”. At once the pecking order in the media hierarchy is established, where cartoonists are the funny men, somewhere at the lower end, not to be taken too seriously.
These books are amazing. You know who was the last guy to commit murders and then write the press about them was? Who actually taunted the public? They still didn’t know his real name, but they called him Jack the Ripper.
Independent of the paper he works for Graysmith now begins to conduct his own private investigation, using the Cipher symbol that the killer has sent. Again as the camera cuts from Graysmith’s home to groups of Feds, Naval officials, CIA agents trying to make some sense of the symbol, we see Graysmith now, poring over the books, studying on serial killers, much to the surprise of his two sons. The reference to Jack the Ripper was quite interesting, apart from the fact that this to date remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the crime world. Again one of the best moments comes in the movie when Avery informs Graysmith, that a history teacher cracked the code , and they meet in office to discuss it. That is when Avery hints at Graysmith’s obsessive nature, also giving us more insights into the differences between the two men, Graysmith a voracious reader, highly knowledgeable, Avery not much into reading. While Avery feels that Graysmith is obsessed, the latter feels he is only passionate about something he is interested in.
Zodiac for sure is a talky movie, pretty much in the lines of Clerks and Glen Garry, Glen Ross, but what many overlooked here, was the fact that the entire dialogues were what set up the whole story, the characters of Avery and Graysmith, the latter’s obsessive nature, and of course the media hierarchy. The editor just can’t take it that a mere cartoonist like Graysmith could actually take an interest here, Avery wants to be away from the case, but as he has to cover it, he has to be close. So where Avery and Graysmith here, the wrong men in the wrong place, or the archetypal square pegs in the round hole?
The second murder in the movie, where another couple Cecilia and Bryan are hacked to death by the Zodiac killer is as gruesome as the first. Again the way the couple is ambushed, held up, hacked to death, the terror filled screaming face of Cecilia, is quite unsettling. The terror here shows up in the blood flecks on the girl’s face, her incessant screaming out, and then Bryan’s bloodied face, looking at Cecilia being hacked to death, whew. Again the scenes following it make up for one of the movie’s best part, Graysmith going through the code, the description of the killer’s costume, and then the reference to the movie adaptation of the “Most Dangerous Game in the World”. The following intercutting sequences of Credence Clearwater’s Bad Moon Rising song,played out over montages of the police chief advising people not to venture out after dark, lovers to neck at home, is one piece of delicious irony. I say ironical, because just as the song ends, along with the montage of images, a cab driver, on whose radio the song has been playing is shot dead. Another victim of the Zodiac killer.
Which is where we are introduced to the other 2 characters in the story, the irritable and grumpy San Francisco detective Dave Toschi( Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong. As they investigate the murder of the cab driver, the focus goes onto a hand print, and then again the next mail to the newspaper. For the first time, we see the cops working in tandem with the newspaper to crack the case. Not really sure when was the last time i saw a movie, which had the cops and media working together to solve a case, most of the times they are generally at loggerheads. The only person who seems to have the dope on the case seems to Graysmith, but again his status as a cartoonist, prevents the cops from taking him too seriously.
Zodiac to me would remain David Fincher’s finest work as a movie director, it was an uncharacteristic attempt by him, moving away from his usual hyper kinetic style to a more measured flow, with a rather dry documentary realism. But it is in the minute character studies, that Fincher scores overwhelmingly. More than the Zodiac killer, it is the character of Robert Graysmith that is intriguing. Why is a mere cartoonist so obsessed about the case? And if he loved the crime scene, why did he end up as a cartoonist? Toschi is the equivalent of him, a gruff cop, obsessed with the case. Another great moment in the movie, was when both Graysmith and Toschi have the same doubt about how the killer, could know what dress exactly the girl was wearing? Two men in different fields, yet both having some kind of telepathic resonance. Again the next scene too, with Avery and Graysmith walking down talking about the killer, and then both Toschi and his associate Armstrong having the same discussion, which sounds eerily similar. Just loved that entire sequence, where both Graysmith and Toschi keep giving their own analysis of the case, and both of them sounding similar.
Unlike Se7en the movie does not have any big stars, but Jake Gylenhall, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo are all actors with a formidable body of work. Jake Glyenhall, who earlier achieved fame for Donnie Darko, was not one of the big stars, but as the obsessed cartoonist Graysmith, he pitches in an excellent performance. This was a role of a man, obsessed so much with what he loves, that at times he appears to be a doppelganger of the Zodiac killer himself, and Glyenhall does full justice to the role. Robert Downey Jr, to me remains one enigmatic actor, much like Val Kilmer, both men immensely talented, more often than not end up doing real trashy stuff. Fortunately he gets a meaty role here, and does full justice to it. The grumpy, irritable cop David Toschi is a role Mark Ruffalo could have done in his sleep, considering more often than not he ends up playing the grumpy young man, notwithstanding his rom coms. While he does go over the top in some scenes, he nonethless manages to impress later on, especially in the interrogation scenes. The detailing and art direction is spot on, capturing the look and feel of the early 70′s, especially the large cars, the costumes, the dim lit interiors, Fincher manages to capture the mood well.