Narratively, David Fincher’s Zodiac is the plainest movie he’s made. It lays its chronology out in a nice, straight line. The direction is mostly prosaic, not poetic. With a few notable exceptions—including a callously aestheticized opening murder, which has the titular maniac shooting a couple in a car in slow-mo while Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy” plays on a car radio, and a montage where newspaper headlines and psycho heiroglyphics are superimposed on walls, Fight Club/Ikea style, to suggest the Zodiac killer’s contamination of California’s psyche—Fincher avoids overt expressionism and lets the dialogue explicate the movie’s ideas. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s scenes are theatrically shaped and polished; so are his characters, who are often defined with vaguely sitcom-ish bits of business (Mark Ruffalo’s detective David Toschi, the primary in San Francisco’s long investigation of the Zodiac murders, mooches food from his partner through several presidential administrations). And the dialogue has a bone-dry absurdist sensibility which, while pleasing, is probably 30 years out-of-period. (“What do you want?” a character asks a burned-out colleague. “Time off? A hug?”)
Because these are the movie’s only pro forma aspects, they stick out like wads of gum on a Faberge egg; but they can’t be written off as evidence of shallowness because they’re integral to the movie’s conception. Zodiac is much of a rebuke to the the soothing, Hollywood-sanctioned lie of closure as The Black Dahlia. It’s been designed and built as carefully as the Transamerica pyramid, a San Francisco landmark that’s first glimpsed in a high-angled tracking shot as a hole in the ground, then shown in time lapse as it rises into the sky and tapers off to completion, simultaneously indicating an ellipse of many years and serving as an analogue for the payoffs this movie won’t give us. Fincher is a purposeful director; I don’t doubt that Zodiac’s more predictable or ungainly elements are put there to be exposed as inadequate. Still, this strikes me as a failure of imagination, because it results in a movie that feels too much like other entries in the police procedural/serial killer genre even while it’s insisting, “Life is not like the movies.” You’d think a work of such ambition could find a more original way to communicate the destructive effect of one character’s Zodiac obsession than by having him come home after a long night of snoop work to find that his wife has taken the kids and left a note.
Fincher also falls prey to Oliver Stone/Steven Spielberg syndrome—making his points through situations, compositions, sound cues and cuts, then having characters make them again verbally, with much less sophistication. For example, throughout Zodiac, search warrants are denied and evidence excluded because the cops didn’t follow procedure, and Fincher, unlike most thriller directors, never panders to the viewer’s inner yahoo by suggesting that we’d be safer if it wasn’t for that damned Miranda ruling; this thread pays off in a scene where Toschi goes to see Dirty Harry , a 1971 film whose bad guy, Scorpio, is the Zodiac killer by way of Snidely Whiplash. When Toschi sees the onscreen cops and politicians examining a taunting letter from Scorpio—a plain-language version of the code-written letters the Zodiac killer sends to newspapers—he walks out in disgust. It’s one of the movie’s richest moments—a comment on Hollywood’s callow exploitation of real trauma, and the difference between right-wing cowboy fantasy and police work; the fact that Toschi was the model for Steve McQueen’s performance in Bullitt makes it richer still. Then, while Toschi is standing in the lobby smoking a cigarette, another moviegoer recognizes him and teases, “That Harry Callahan sure did a hell of a job with the case.” “Yeah,” Toschi replies. “No need for due process, right?” Not content to hit nails on the head, Fincher pounds them through the wood.
But these flaws (or marketplace concessions?) don’t seriously damage the picture. Zodiac is a good movie made nearly great on the strength of its ideas and their articulation through picture and sound. In its own, outwardly squarer way, it’s as vivid an example of style equalling substance as Inland Empire and Miami Vice. Zodiac moves with familiar rhythms, but it looks eerily new (more on the visuals in a moment), and its story methodically violates the expectations we carry into pictures of this type. It’s conventionally structured but unconventionally conceived and shot—a long, deliberately repetitious movie with an inconclusive ending about people whose obsession with justice bore no fruit. Its three central characters—Toschi, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)—believe, like all driven movie heroes, that they can succeed where others failed; obsession gives them delusions of grandeur, alienates them from their colleagues and families and leads them to the edge of madness, but never to the truth.
Zodiac’s 138-minute running time contains scenes that repeat as the story unfolds; the versions have different, often frustrating outcomes. About a dozen years after the killer’s first appearance, Toschi’s original partner (Anthony Edwards) retires, and Toschi lamely tries to repeat the shtick with his new partner, who isn’t having it; likewise, after Avery flames out from paranoia and substance abuse, his acolyte Graysmith tries to re-create their unlikely newsroom friendship with Avery’s replacement (Adam Goldberg) who can’t be bothered. Time changes everything but the narrative’s forgone conclusion (or non-conclusion). Nearly four decades after Zodiac’s first kill, his identity is still shrouded in darkness.
About that darkness: as a number of critics—including screenwriter Larry Gross and our own Ryland Walker Knight—have pointed out, Zodiac is also the first High-Definition feature made at the studio level whose images were recorded straight to a hard drive, without the intercession of videotape. One could make the case that the material non-existence of Zodiac, the motion picture, is of a piece with the film’s unclosed narrative and still-anonymous killer—but I don’t buy it. Zodiac’s marriage of technology and subject matter is a fluke of timing; if the first studio film to be shot this way had been Legally Blonde 3, nobody would fixate on it. Modern filmmaking technology is critical to Zodiac’s effect, but it’s not the hard drive that makes the difference: it’s Harris Savides’ cinematography, which takes fuller advantage of HD’s low-light capacity than any movie to date. For Savides and Fincher, the camera isn’t just a means to shoot at night with fewer lights than a film production would require. They take the technology one giant aesthetic leap further and use it to scrutinize the shape, the texture, the essence of night—to unveil it onscreen for the first time.
I first saw Zodiac on opening night, and when I left the theater and looked around the intersection of State and Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, I realized that movies have never really shown me what night looks like. On film, darkness reads as black, or very dark grey; for generations, moviemakers have responded by abstracting night into the Idea of Night, carving out discrete portions of each frame and letting gloom swallow the rest. If a 35mm studio production equipped with enough generators to power the U.S.S. Nimitz illuminated the same nocturnal panoramas seen in Zodiac, I still doubt we’d see a tenth of the detail Savides and Fincher capture on HD, a medium that’s more sensitive to gradations of shadow. Watching Zodiac, we’re forced to acknowledge that while film captures daylight more comprehensively and accurately, night belongs to video, which presents an image that’s closer to what the human eye can discern. In Zodiac’s opening murder, the killer cruises past a necking couple, then drives off down the road, receding into a speck; not only can you follow his taillights, you can make out the texture of individual leaves from foreground to deep background (which must be a quarter mile away). In a deep focus tracking shot of Graysmith crossing a suburban lawn, you don’t just see Graysmith moving from middleground to foreground, and the tree on the lawn behind him, and the street behind that, and the houses with their illuminated windows behind that, and still more trees and houses behind that; you can see the residual yellow-orange light from the city reflected in overhanging clouds, etching every billow and whorl. Michael Mann’s HD experimentation in Collateral, Robbery Homicide Division and Miami Vice cleared this visual wilderness; Zodiac builds itself a home.
But the technology isn’t just being used for “Gee whiz” effect. The movie’s cinematography is its simplest and most powerful means of emphasizing the notion of unknowability. In Zodiac, we can see night as clear as day, but this transparency doesn’t help us, or the characters, expose the killer, much less determine his identity or anticipate his next attack. The contrast between the absolute clarity of the visuals and the absolute mystery of the narrative is Zodiac’s very best joke.
Along the way, Fincher and company make a tangential but equally compelling point about how technology has shrunk the world. Thirty or forty years ago, America had a smaller population, but seemed bigger than it does today. This point is made repeatedly (but subtly, unlike the “Life is not a movie” aspect) in dialogue establishing that it takes longer to get from Point A to Point B than characters think, and in situations where people urgently need to know certain facts but are forced to wait. Edwards’ character asks if a cop (Donal Logue) in another town could send him some information via Telefax—a technology the San Francisco P.D. installed six months earlier—and is told that the other department doesn’t have the technology, so they’ll have to use regular mail, which will take three days. Graysmith has his first date with the woman he’ll later marry (Chloë Sevigny) on a night when Avery’s decided to drive alone to another city to meet an anonymous tipster; when she points out that it’s dumb for Avery to agree to such a meeting after having been threatened by the killer, Graysmith becomes obsessed with his friend’s safety, bums a dime to make a pay phone call to Avery’s wife to see if he’s checked in, then goes home and sits by his own phone to await further word.
By reminding us of how much life has changed thanks to the Internet and cellphones, Zodiac performs a small but valuable public service—and it just happens to be one that feeds back into the movie’s preoccupation with the limits of certainty, of rationality, of fact itself. Things happen faster now than they did 40 years ago, and we find out about them sooner, but we still don’t know as much as we’d like or control as many things as we might wish. Jim Emerson points out that the movie takes pains to establish exactly where we are at any given moment and periodically remind us how many people have been killed, which suspects are still in play, which supposed leads and clues have been verified or debunked. Emerson writes: “The two effects shots that stand out—following a taxi from directly above as it moves through the streets to an intersection where a murder will take place; and a time-lapse view of the construction of the Transamerica pyramid building—both emphasize the unity of time and space, one as a measurement of the other. Scene after scene in Zodiac begins with a timecode that places it not only in a historical context (month, day, year) but in relationship to the previous scene (’two days later’; ’three months later.’” But these specifics don’t lead to The Answer. The movie’s timestamp title cards ultimately prove as useless as the ones in The Shining.
In this context, the obsession with detail that’s the hallmark of police work, journalism and history seems, in retrospect, like the characters’ understandable attempt to distract themselves from the awful realization of how much they don’t know and will never know. When you look back over the whole movie, the characters’ fanatical pursuit of certainty seems like an epic form of busywork—rituals occuping time that might otherwise be spent huddled in fear of the unknown. Repetition with meaningless variation is encoded in the screenplay’s superstructure. Zodiac is really three movies on the same theme, the impossibility of certainty—which turns out to be a Philosophy 101 way of describing the movie’s deeper, more primal story, that of a band of righteous warriors who set out to capture or kill Death, but fail. Fincher and Vanderbilt equate the desire for closure—whether in a real-life murder case or a fictional narrative—with humankind’s enduring need to be reassured that life is not a question mark; that its arc can be mapped and its endpoint predicted; that through hard work, intelligence and lucky breaks, we can control what happens to us; that there’s something beyond The End; that we are driving our own stories, not vice-versa.
The first movie in this existential three-fer is an epic policier about cops and journalists trying and failing to catch a killer, and the effect of the killer’s rampage on California for a decade, starting in the late 1960s. The second movie is an unofficial sequel—almost a remake—in which cartoonist Graysmith, who lived vicariously through his buddy Avery while he wrote columns about the case, tries to play detective and synthesize everyone else’s information. Graysmith (whose two books about the case yielded the movie you’re now watching) gets closer to the truth, but not close enough. The final title card, a lame substitute for closure, will draw groans from any viewer who didn’t know going in that the murders were never solved. The viewer, meanwhile, undertakes a similar journey, synthesizing Movie 1 and Movie 2 in his or mind, but getting no closer to resolution. All three movies—the epic policier, the lone hero narrative and the meta-story of the viewer watching Movies 1 and 2—are about the unknowability of evil and the implacability of death. They’re about wanting an answer and realizing you’ll never get one. They’re about fearing the dark even when you can see, or think you can see, every detail. All anxiety is born in darkness. Fear is mystery’s child.