Criminally Overlooked: “Zodiac”

September 1, 2009

zodiacAmong the most criminally of the criminally overlooked is 2007s Zodiac by David Fincher. This is an epic, sprawling film that effortlessly crosses generational lines using the passport of unsettled, amorphous horror. It’s a film without a wasted shot or a mediocre performance. It should have swept the Oscars. It should have beaten down No Country for Old Men by revealing the Coen Brothers’ (and, to be fair, Cormac McCarthy’s) hipster-artist nihilism for the poserism it ultimately is. But that didn’t happen. I was one of the few who saw it and it’s barely remembered now. Today, I asked a hip, intelligent coworker if she’d seen it, and she replied, “No. Is it a TV series?” It was all I could do not to run down the hallway naked and screaming about the endtimes (admittedly, this packs less of punch around my office since I did it after I saw Transformers 2’s box office numbers).

The film is based on two non-fiction books by Robert Graysmith (in the film played by Jake Gyllenhall), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Tribune who was on the ground in 1969 when a series of seemingly-unconnected murders throughout Northern California were linked by the delivery of gloating, threatening letters and codes sent by an anonymous killer who identified himself only as “Zodiac.” The film follows a core group of characters as they doggedly pursue the killer, but expands to include various doctors, lawyers, newsmen, and cops who all did their part to hunt the elusive killer. The movie stretches to 1991 and beyond, but the Zodiac is never caught. While a case is made for one suspect in particular, it closes on a note of uncertainty that’s been omnipresent since the first letter was received.

Graysmith, who has an insatiable drive and a talent for puzzles is joined by reporter Paul Avery. As played by Robert Downey Jr. Avery is a charming rake—a ‘60s-era hard-living, free-spirited reporter whose talent is matched by his tastes for excess. Downey plays the role with the same charm and charisma that’s anchored many a lesser movie (last summer’s Iron Man pretty much belonged to him), but he’s also utterly unafraid to hint at the seediness and recklessness that underwrites his swaggering attitude. On the lawdog side, we have SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) a clotheshorse, whose vanity only briefly conceals his ferocious intellect and work-ethic. Over the years these men chase down leads and confessions and evidence, hitting walls, blind alleys, and ambiguous conclusions. The years drag on. Graysmith goes from being a single divorcee to a family man, to a single dad. Avery looses his equilibrium and lets his vices run him out of the job and into dissolution. Toschi moves on to new cases, fresher, more urgent murders, but never lets go of the Zodiac.

If it was merely a great procedural like Citizen X, I probably wouldn’t be trumpeting this movie as much as I am. Zodiac deftly and subtley paints a world in the midst of a transition as violent as any one of the Zodiac’s killings. The opening scene shows a Fourth of July as bucolic as any committed to national memory—right down to the braces one of the victim’s wears—with Marvin Gaye crooning on the soundtrack. When the Lover’s Lane endeavor is shattered in a hail of dispassionately-fired bullets, the song switches to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” It’s a neat bit of aural storytelling: the comforting love song transforms into the stereotypically ‘60s hippie-trippy folk song. And the folk song about the hurdy-gurdy man who meets the narrator at the end of the world, singing songs of love and joy is juxtaposed against an ice-blooded murder. The rolly-polly man might be all well and good when you’re getting baked, but as Herman Melville wrote, “What like a bullet can undeceive?” The peace-love-turtledove attitudes of the Age of Aquarius is short-circuited in this small way when it slams into the horror of the darkness of human madness. The Zodiac, Fincher suggests, is just a dry run for the Mansons, Altamont, and Vietnam. Oh, and that’s just the first ten minutes.

Fincher is possibly the only director to come out of music videos who know how to use images to tell a full-length story and not just set a mood to a song. His frequent overhead shots (a cab navigating lonely, late-night streets) Graysmith’s car plunging into a cloud bank that’s swallowed the lower portion of the Golden Gate Bridge) suggests the vulnerability of we random potential-targets (as the Zodiac investigators no doubt must have come to see the world around them) as well as teasing us—for just a moment—with a God’s-eye view that shows us something, but not the thing we desperately want to see—the killer.

He also gets incredible performances out of a tremendous cast who gel seamlessly without ever jockeying for screen time or spotlight. Downey is unafraid to lace his Paul Avery’s charm with rancid selfishness, but steps back to allow Gyllenhall’s Graysmith to play off of him. Likewise, one-off character actors simply shine: Brain Cox as a pompous lawyer, Donol Logue and Elias Koteas as smart, resourceful small-town cops. Ruffalo makes his Toschi both a consummate professional as well as a pragmatist possessed of a vanity that’s easy to believe almost derailed his career. And Anthony Edwards as his partner shows the quiet price the investigation takes on the men. And Phillip Baker Hall…well, the guy just owns everything he’s in.

In an ideal world, Zodiac, not Transformers 2 or Inglourious Basterds would be the movie packing them in. As a matter of fact, if I were king of the world, Zodiac would be required viewing in all high schools, and those who skip it would be strapped down with their eyes taped open A Clockwork Orange-style and forced to watch it, And all female flight attendants would have to dress as Orion Slave Girls…okay, that last one doesn’t have anything to do with Zodiac. Anyway, this is easily one of the best films made in the past decade—smart, gripping, and as consuming as the mystery itself.

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